Thursday, October 01, 2015

Fucking amateurs

Patrick Marber’s The Red Lion ably shows how we can fuck things up we hold dearest, even football. Daniel Mays ‘plays a blinder’ as Tim Sherwood-esque manager Jimmy Kidd, a ducker and diver, a force of nature with a theory or five about the game and a man with little self-deprecation and no good way of maintaining his life outside of it. Kidd uses football to cook up schemes to keep his head above water. The other two do good turns too – Calvin Demba as the talented but fatally dissembling young player Jordan, and Peter Wright the loyal clubman and former pro Johnny Yates who just wants to stay involved in the game. It’s an expert evocation of the non-league milieu.

The amateur club is at various stages seen as a subversive force (‘it’s a pirate ship here’), the means of escape for a working class lad (‘the state isn’t your mate’), or a typically English idyll that sometimes takes Mays and Wright's lines off into Rylance-like Jerusalem territory. A slice of This Is England – if you must. More than once is the team bearing the red lion’s badge described as playing on that ‘beautiful green meadow’. Once you’re inside, anything is possible – ‘A collusion of people wanting to make it happen, makes it happen’ – or you can just use it as your local.

But it’s the pressure of that cliquey club culture and the possibly dubious notion of the club as a site of almost utopian qualities that generates the drama. The mantra of What Goes On In the Dressing Room Stays in the Dressing Room is impossible to maintain as manager and kitman both aim to strike a deal with the young talent in the hope of getting a cut (in Jimmy’s case financial, in Johnny’s reputational) from his inevitable sale, and so maintain the cycle. Even for the loyal kitman, ‘the club’ was not his number one priority despite their protestations to the contrary, while the Sherwoodesque gaffer howls ‘It’s not a bung, it’s football’.

All this comes to naught as they find out what we already knew, that’s he been injecting himself with painkillers just to keep playing (‘the sleeping giant’ club he was having a trial at quickly found this out), an inquiry is launched, the manager is sacked, the coach leaves, the promotion push grinds to a halt and the good times come to a cataclysmic end – just like they do at many a club up and down the land. But nowhere else to go, still we/they turn up.

As excessive ticket prices, FIFA bribe culture and the increasingly banal spectacle of Bayern Madridalona turn people away from the game’s top tiers, this is a timely reminder that even in the non league game there is still corruption, still people on the make, still people who won’t pay wages the right way when an off balance sheet shifty transaction will do. Marber, 90s Morris collaborator and creator of hit plays Dealer’s Choice and Closer, is on the board at Lewes and has maybe uncovered more about the workings of the game near the top end of the amateur pyramid than he wanted to see.

So a very decent production that should get a west end or regional revival in the not too distant future. A final world for the crowd – I was chuffed to have finally made it to the National’s Dorfman Theatre on its penultimate night, but no 'football people' could be found in the audience. This is not surprising in itself, it’s a play at a bourgeois institution, but if they wanted a football fix these bankers, high rollers and cultural cognoscenti would ironically have been more at home at a hospitality box in the Emirates than here.

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