There’s a tendency to read Brexit into everything these days, and in his programme notes, director Michael Emans invites us to a political interpretation of The Red Lion, seeing in it the ruthless individualism that “began with Thatcher and now seems to be approaching its zenith” with you-know-what. Bringing the B-word into it may be a stretch, but there’s definitely big themes at work in Patrick Marber’s 2015 play – themes much bigger than the petty troubles of the small-town northern football club at which it’s set.
The eponymous non-league football club have a new young star on their hands, the kind who might win the championship for them. The manager, Kidd, has designs on flogging him to a bigger club so he can get the kickback he needs to keep the wolf from the door. The kitman (and club legend), Johnny Yates, on the other hand, wants to keep him on board for the good of club, town and fans. Thus, over three scenes set in the home changing room, the older men begin a battle for young Jordan’s heart and mind.
Superficially, this is Roy of the Rovers, jumpers-for-goalposts stuff. There’s plenty of the old “yes boss, no boss” from Jordan, jibes about blind referees from Kidd, and replaying of old glories by Yates. But the quotidian football chatter gives way to heightened speech and flowery philosophising of a kind uncharacteristic of blokes in changing rooms. There’s more going on here.
These characters sit somewhere between the literal and the allegorical. Yates’ retelling of a giant-killing goal, for instance, isn’t the usual “So I’ve got into the box, I’ve hit it, I’ve put it in the back of the onion bag”. There’s a bit of that, but the elevated, lyrical language he uses turns him into something akin to the spirit of the club and the community. And Jordan, a born-again Christian in response to a rough upbringing, can slip out of the mono-syllabic monotone usually required of fictional footballers to wax lyrical about honesty and ethics, as if he too is representational. What the play loses in realism by doing this, it more than makes up for in depth.
The multi-faceted battle between Yates and Kidd – between community and individual, between settling and striving – particularly draws you in. They’re both on the bottom of the pile, in footballing terms and in life, largely because of cogs whirring many levels above them. Life does what it will and the machine doesn’t have a happy place for everyone. Yates has made peace with this much better than Kidd has; Kidd still has a demented optimism that he can grift his way to success. Yet as they battle for control of the young lad that represents something of a last chance for either of them, neither seem to realise fate bonds them to the same destination.
The cast are noticeably a notch up in class from many things seen at this touring level, and that’s no disrespect to the theatre or other performers. John McArdle (forever tagged Brookside‘s Billy Corkhill) looks the part as Yates, sounds the part, and does a good wise and world-weary. Brendan Charleson plays Kidd with a touch of camp, Brylcreeming his hair, wandering in and out of the showers in pants and a too-small bathrobe – less Alex Ferguson, more 80s gameshow host. It’s a non-canonical but striking portrayal of a football manager.
The real revelation is fresh-out-of-LAMDA Harry McMullen, making his professional debut as Jordan. It’s a role that requires a certain fickleness. Jordan’s youthful opinions are strongly held, but easily swayed, requiring McMullen to play honest, ambitious, naive, arrogant, loyal, deceitful all within short spaces of time, all with an uncertain but growing swagger. He pulls it all off, making him highly believable as the young Scouse wonderkid. It bodes well for his own future prospects.
Football gets lazily used as a metaphor in lots of scenarios. It’s so easy to understand and universal, even politicians are prone to drop a football analogy. Rarely do you see it used well and subtly as in this play. There’s a richness to The Red Lion that transcends the business of winning and losing, of success and failure, a richness you don’t get when the football is the focal point. Emans and team (Frances Collier in particular needs commending on an evocative design) have delivered a fine Scottish debut for it.