Marc Brenner

Dear England

Reviewer’s Rating

The huge, illuminated oval of the stadium lights hangs over the Dear England stage from the very first moments of the play: a hovering reminder that, no matter how much Gareth Southgate may talk about putting fear aside, the pressure to win never truly goes away.

Dear England functions primarily as both paean and examination of our national sport, with the occasional glance into the sidling, matey machinations that go on behind the scenes, and the broader troubled stage on which football is played. Dear England is at its best when it warmly embraces its comfortable comedy bones, or when it allows itself to really sit in moments of vulnerability, although laughs of recognition defuse almost every example of the latter. There will be added enjoyment if you are a long-term England fan, with copious references to past managers, but even if you have only picked up your England football knowledge via general cultural osmosis there are still plenty of laughs.

The players are painted in broad, press-familiar strokes, which are generally charming but do not give us any particular insight. There are standouts within the material, however: Will Close is particularly strong, easily handling Harry Kane’s journey from diffident new captain to self-actualised vulnerability and heartbreak. Josh Barrow’s jittery, kinetic performance as Jordan Pickford, and moments of desperate emotion from Lewis Shepherd (Dele) are also excellent. As Gareth Southgate, Joseph Fiennes manages to find nuances within the earnest exterior we’re all so familiar with. The play’s prising open of Southgate’s own failures to act on his message perhaps does not go far enough, although his continued inability to move past his own 1996 defeat makes for an interesting thorn in his otherwise largely unflappable side.

The darkness that lingers in the wider world rarely intrudes into Graham’s particular England. There is a fleeting gallery of mimicries, with all three Tory PMs getting their farewell speeches, and the requisite Covid-19 mention, but we don’t get a sense of how the wider political or global climates are affecting either Southgate or the players. The play takes a stab at addressing the horrific racist abuse of many players, particularly of Saka, Rashford and Sancho, but there is little interrogation of football culture as a whole, largely relying on rhetoric and emotion to convince us that we will get better — without ever giving us a real sense of how that might happen. Denzel Baidoo beautifully delivers a version of Bukayo Saka’s famous post-Euros social media post, but in a play intended to be about shifting a whole culture, it is not quite enough to let those words stand by themselves — particularly given that Graham’s version largely omits Saka’s urgent call for the public and social media companies to act together.

It is also odd to include the moment where Harry Kane removed his LGBT+ armband before playing in Qatar without any wider contextual acknowledgement of the issue of homophobia within football, and Southgate’s in-play waving off of the decision feels particularly sticky given the recent Henderson controversy. Fiennes frequently turns to the audience as he speaks, inviting us into the team, into the effort to problem-solve, but the world outside the team is so thin that this conceit does not always work. Southgate wants to interrogate what England means to these players, but it is never an England that feels fully realised.

The play is perhaps a little too long, with the moments that attempt to play out the matches inevitably lacking the magic of the beautiful game, and becoming slightly repetitive by our third penalty shoot-out — although arguably that is simply the lot of an England fan. There are fleeting moments of real euphoria, helped along by Jon Clark’s broadly effective lighting design, but often they simply serve to make you wish you were in a real stadium, watching a real game, instead. The soundtrack does a lot of heavy lifting here, packed full of all the football bangers you’d expect.

The pathos of the ending, England’s exit from the Qatar World Cup, rests on the supposition we can find victory in loss. However, for that to work on a purely narrative level — and given Southgate’s constant invocation of the idea of telling a story, this is a play where narrative really does matter — we have to believe that there has been a victory, that the cultural shift they reference is real and impactful. Maybe that’s true on a team culture level, but it does not appear to be true on a national one. The successes that perhaps do feel more substantial (the rising prominence of the women’s game for example, which gets a brief, celebratory, crowd-pleasing moment) are largely sidelined. If the play fails to provide us with a wholly compelling answer to its questions around national identity, what it does give us is a little of the agonies and triumphs of football, a little of the spark of joy and devotion that drives the country every few years to hope and hope again. Dear England may tell us that victory is not the only marker of success, but as we walk out to the street to the strains of it’s coming home you can’t help but think: hey, maybe 2024 really is our year.