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Theatre review A play of two halves

The Red Lion is an acute examination of the conflict in football between old and new values, says LYNNE WALSH

The Red Lion
Trafalgar Studios, London

FOOTBALL — beautiful game, sometimes a very ugly business. And at the heart of this piece by the accomplished Patrick Marber is the commodification of young player Jordan (Dean Bone).

Talented but damaged in more ways than one, he seems to embody the tension between the old and the new — football’s golden age versus a brash business world.

A troubled young man, he is promising, ambitious and honest, a combination which causes huge problems for the “lovable rogue” Kidd (Stephen Tompkinson), whose venality is born out of desperation combined with a whiff of narcissism. Tompkinson gave a near-perfect portrayal of moral-free reporter Damien Day in Drop the Dead Donkey and the heart-wrenching miner-clown in Brassed Off. Here, he is by turns slick and clumsy, deft and daft, and his comic timing's impeccable.

Marber’s script, replete with gags and tag-lines, is woven into a kind of one-man banter. Within seconds of Tompkinson’s appearance, we're guffawing as his routine speeds and jinks along like a striker sailing towards the goal.

We’re brought down to earth with a bump, of course. The kitman, former star player but hopeless manager Yates (John Bowler) carries his painful past with a physicality that makes us wince.
His devotion to the game borders on religious obsession. His journey away from and back to his beloved club, whose Red Lion crest he bears as a tattoo, is grim indeed. He’s had wilderness years, paid his penance and has a redemption, of sorts. A latter-day John the Baptist, he anoints his young charges and tries to keep their souls pure.

Kidd, though, is no Messiah. More a Judas, if anything, he suppresses his love for his fellow man in return for 30 pieces of silver. Yet truth sometimes spills out of him: “What good is a man’s word, if it’s just a sound he makes?”

With football’s international reach, and its often tarnished reputation, this piece could resonate with global audiences. Who’d take on the task of translating these torrents of dialogue, though?
But it would be a truly wonderful experience, just like watching Brazil.

Runs until December 2, box office: ticket agencies.


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