The two positions that spring to mind when you think of the most challenging in the country are Prime Minister and England manager.
Few in recent years have been able to weather the storms of either as effectively as Gareth Southgate, England’s men’s football team manager since 2016. This ability to lead has piqued the interest of many, and it contrasts with the turbulence in government, as Prime Ministers come and go.
Dear England, a new play at the National Theatre, depicts the narrative of Southgate’s tenure as manager, a personal story of redemption, overachievement, and character development. It derives its name from a letter Southgate issued to England supporters before the 2021 Euros when some fans protested the team’s support for kneeling.
The England manager is skillfully played by Joseph Fiennes, who captures Southgate’s certainty yet shyness brilliantly.
Much of the play focuses on Southgate’s psychological transformation. As he approaches the top role, he is portrayed as being a little too inexperienced behind the ears for his good, maybe best put in the young setup where he can be seen but not heard.
However, it soon becomes evident that the Football Association misunderstood the guy, who emerges as a leader with conviction and vision. Dr. Pippa Grange (Gina McKee), a psychologist who sets out to find the source of England’s failings, assists him in his efforts. What are her conclusions? That the nation’s incapacity to cope with setbacks is what is holding it back.
There is also a strong supporting cast that includes several of the top on-field protagonists from previous years. Writer James Graham treats Harry Kane unfairly, yet he quickly demonstrates that he is a lot more complex and sophisticated than he looks.
To put the National Game on the stage of the National Theatre has been an utter dream and, in particular, to see the subject matter draw in new audiences to watch a play
Political rumblings of a different type, particularly those in Westminster, cast a delicate shade over Southgate’s narrative. However, Liz Truss, Boris Johnson, and Theresa May only make short appearances. Graham, a master of the political story (Sherwood, This House, to mention a few) avoids making this one too obvious.
Regardless, the extent to which this England endeavor has been molded by its ethos – including its politics – is evident everywhere. Dear England explores the team’s attitude to racism and poverty, as well as internal opposition to its openness on these issues.
The only true drawback to this production is that we don’t know how it will conclude. But that’s just because it hasn’t arrived yet. Gareth Southgate and England will be made or broken at the European Championships in Germany next year. If they follow in the footsteps of the under-21 and women’s teams and overcome their continental rivals, they will achieve something no men’s team has done since 1966. Southgate will not have a happy ending if they do not. In any case, James Graham and the company have done an excellent job with the plot so far.
Nonetheless, the last performance of this drama is set on August 11 at the Olivier Theatre. However, the work will now play in the West End for a very restricted 14-week run.
Graham remarks that “To put the National Game on the stage of the National Theatre has been an utter dream and, in particular, to see the subject matter draw in new audiences to watch a play. It fills me with such excitement and joy to be bringing Rupert’s euphoric and entertaining production to the West End, with all its incredible movement and music and – what seems to be, for audiences so far – a deeply moving story inspired by the incredible journey of the men’s England football team.”