This is the second 'football play' I've seen this year. I'm not a football fan but like Three Lions, this isn't so much about the game as the people involved. Three Lions was set around England's World Cup bid while Patrick Marber's new play is at the other end of the spectrum and set at a non-league football club.
With the story taking place in the club's seen better days changing room, the manager (Daniel Mays) is excited about a talented new kid (Calvin Demba) who wants to play for the team. The kid's arrival is perfect timing as the club has just lost its best player to a rival team at a time when they were on a winning streak. The kit man and ex-Manager (Peter Wight) is also excited but has a fatherly concern for the kid and wants to make sure he is looked after properly.
All three share a deep passion for the game but for each it means different things. Also for very differently reason they seem quite lonely and carry scars from their pasts which perhaps explains why they all bury themselves in the game.
At one level you have a play about the ins and outs of non-league football - the lack of money, the tactics on the field, contracts, deals and politics. On another level you have a play about loyalty, loneliness and some of hardships of everyday life.
The human story has the darker, uglier brush strokes for which Marber is well known with plays such as Closer but not all of it quite works. Perhaps it is the authenticity of the setting but there were certain pieces of dialogue that just didn't sit comfortably with the characters. Likewise there were some odd gestures and moments of contact that felt staged within that setting.
It is slow to get going and could probably do with a bit of pruning in the first half but the second half gets more into its stride and has moments when it really flies. It's always enjoyable to watch stage stalwarts Wight and Mays and particularly performing alongside new talent like Demba but this was a play with hesitations for me. Enjoyable enough but not wholly satisfactory.
The Red Lion is on the Dorfman Theatre at the National until Sep 30.
The last time I saw Daniel Mays he was weeping at the curtain call of the last performance of Mojo alongside an equally upset Mr W.