It starts with Southgate (Joseph Fiennes) being offered the job and bringing in psychologist Pippa Grange (Gina McKee) to help find out what is missing from the team's performance.
Naturally, a training program that incorporates talking about feelings, as well as skills and tactics, gets pushback from the team and the coaches.
The first half of the play focuses on that dive into the psychological blocks and trying to win the players over to the different approach as they prepare for the first World Cup under Southgate's management.
There is a particular focus on penalty shootouts which have long been the England team's Achilles heel.
Once the story reaches the World Cup, the games are recreated with just the England team, their movement 'on the pitch' and the sound effects of the ball being kicked and the crowd. It is evocative.
And having highlighted the behind-the-scenes drama of the penalty shootouts, the tension is successfully recreated despite knowing the overall outcome.
In key moments real clips from games are played as a backdrop to what is happening on stage.
The second half focuses more on subsequent tournaments up to the World Cup in Qatar. It does lose a little of the tension for this non-football fan as the games seem to blur into one, but there are still enough moments to capture the drama.
The passing of time is marked as Conservative Prime Ministers come and go, a dig at the longevity of political leadership vs that of England's captain. They all leave through the audience, as do any characters for whom their part in the story is over.
External events such as COVID, Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ rights are referenced in how they impact decisions and thinking. And in one scene with the captain of the women's England football team was a particularly nice touch and garnered cheers and spontaneous applause.
Fiennes disappears into Southgate with that familiar posture and voice.
And I think I've heard more parodies of Harry Kane's voice than the real thing but Will Close (who I last saw in his one-person show Mediocre White Male at the King's Head) was on point. He got a good few of the laughs too.
And that is the thing about Dear England; the psychology of the game and team mindset is a really interesting base. If you strip away the football, this is a play about masculinity, mental health and the toxic stereotypes that ultimately hinder performance.
The game itself adds a layer of drama.
James Graham's play evoked laughter, cheers and, yes, spontaneous applause. This non-football fan included. I'm giving it ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ and a half.
Dear England, National Theatre
Written by James Graham
Directed by Rupert Goold
Starring Joseph Fiennes and Gina McKee
Running time: 2 hours and 50 minutes, including an interval
Booking until 11 August, visit the National Theatre for more details and ticket information
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