The Iron Liddy Column
Raising the curtain on corruption in football - A review of Patrick Marber's new play 'The Red Lion'
As you may or may not have gleaned, Iain has asked me to commit to a regular weekly column to appear on Wednesdays. I have agreed with a degree of trepidation because I’m not a sports journalist or a professional writer, just a claret and blue blogger with West Ham in my heart. I know that I’m prone to epic articles and getting bogged down in detail but I hope that as my confidence and experience grows they will become more succinct, not to mention more quickly produced!
As the rest of Iain’s squad of authors are eminently more qualified than I am to analyse the tactics of the game and the merits of players I have decided to focus on the cultural and social side of West Ham and football in general, with some current football affairs thrown in for good measure. My articles won’t be to everyone’s taste but I hope you’ll appreciate that they’ve been produced with the maximum of effort and the best of intentions to inform and entertain you.
Last week I was invited by my former schoolmate and fellow Hammer Rich to see Patrick Marber’s new play The Red Lion at the National Theatre on London’s South Bank; a drama set within a cash-strapped non-League football club. Rich is already a fan of Marber’s work, having previously seen his acclaimed plays Dealer’s Choice and Closer, but as I was unfamiliar with his oeuvre I decided to do a bit of background reading beforehand.
I discovered that despite his success as a playwright and comic writer in the 1990s (his work on The Day Today and with Steve Coogan on the Alan Partridge shows preceded a move into high-end theatre) Marber had suffered an extreme case of writer’s block and had almost given up on writing completely after failing to produce anything for several years. During this protracted fallow period Marber moved out of London to rural Sussex with his wife and children. Unfortunately the peace and isolation of the countryside only served to compound his creative block and he was in real danger of a permanent place on the literary subs bench. To distract himself from his frustration he decided to take his son to The Dripping Pan to watch Lewes FC, although he is actually an Arsenal fan. It proved to be a turning point for both Marber and the struggling football club.
In an interview with The Guardian in 2010 Marber describes how he reconnected with the essence of the beautiful game and the effect it had on his life and the future of the club:
“We came to our first game at the beginning of last season and I just had the best time I’d had at a football match for years, in terms of a very pure footballing experience.
“Obviously, I’d enjoyed greatly supporting Arsenal for years and still do but in terms of the game it just reawakened my love, reminded me why as a kid I’d loved watching and playing it.
“And being close to the pitch: I’d forgotten what it was like to be close, and to hear the players and the ref and the linesman, and feel the atmosphere in a completely different way, because I realised that sitting at the Emirates Stadium you experience the atmosphere by proxy, through the crowd, because you’re one of them, whereas here you’re kind of in it.
“So I thought: ‘Great, we’re going to carry on coming, we’re going to support Lewes FC as well as Arsenal, this is a good thing.’ I went on the website to find out more about the club I was now going to support and found out it was in dire peril. It owed HM Revenue & Customs about a hundred grand at that point and there were messages on the website from the owners saying please contact us if you can help. Please contact Steve Ibbitson the manager if you can help.
“My first thought was I could afford to donate a bit of money to the club: a couple of grand or something, if that would be of help, so I phoned Steve Ibbitson and said: ‘Look, I’m just a bloke who’s started supporting your club and I don’t want to see them go under and I do know a few people with some money who might be able to help.’
“We had a three-hour cup of tea on a very rainy day and he took the time and had the courtesy to explain to a complete stranger how the club works and how they got in this financial strait. At that time it looked in serious shit, it was going to go under.
“Once I’d met with Ibbo I was in for life. There was nothing I could do. This is a man who loves his club and he’d been working around the clock, had given his own money to the club, wasn’t being paid and was just doing it for love. And I thought: ‘I want to get involved with this man, with this club. I’m in.’ I just couldn’t stand aside. I went home to my wife and said: ‘I have some bad news.’”
Marber’s enthusiasm for non-League Lewes was to help add their name to the growing legion of community-owned clubs. He threw himself into an ambassadorial role, persuading his showbiz friends and local Lewes people to join him in investing in the club. As a result, in their 125th year, the Rooks swerved bankruptcy to become Lewes Community Football Club.
Marber went on to say:
“We need plumbers, we need electricians – we certainly need more supporters – and we need people to come and make sandwiches, we need sponsorship, we need more stewards: the whole club is a volunteer club. This could be a disastrous experiment and go tits up, and just be a silly dream, or it could work fabulously, and become a model for other clubs to follow, just as we’ve followed AFC Wimbledon and FC United of Manchester.”
At the time of his interview in 2010 Marber revealed that his creative juices had thankfully started to flow again and that he was working on two new screenplays, while simultaneously helping to manage the football club. He insisted then that his foray into club management was not background for a prospective drama.
“There’s a fabulous play to be written about this takeover. I could write it tomorrow. It’s not research but there’s been fantastic material, as you can imagine when there are six blokes who don’t really know each other at the beginning, get together to take over a football club and have to negotiate with the owners. It’s very rich. But I’m not going to write about it. It’s too good.”
True to his word he didn’t go on to write the story of Lewes’ takeover but he was clearly inspired by his rekindled passion for non-League football and the result is his latest play The Red Lion, which opened to very good reviews earlier this month.
Armed with this background information I hopped on the Fenchurch Street line with Rich last Tuesday, keen to see how the story of a small time semi-pro football club would translate to the stage. The only other staged football events I’ve seen before have been several Hammers Heroes shows and a West Ham fans forum, where the audience has always been predominantly male. I fully expected the theme of the play to attract a similar gender bias but could immediately see that Marber’s reputation as a playwright has transcended the subject matter to attract a demographic more typical to the National Theatre than a football stadium.
The first thing we noticed as we took our seats in the stalls was the smell. The set designer Anthony Ward has cleverly used the distinctive odour of horse liniment to instantly evoke the musty, fetid atmosphere which has pervaded men’s football changing rooms for generations. Not that I’m in the habit of frequenting such places you understand but I’ve stood and shivered outside enough of them to be immediately transported back to a cold wet side line at the slightest whiff of white horse oil. I was sure that I could also detect undertones of sweat and damp mud but that might have just been the realism of Ward’s dank and dilapidated dressing room where the story unfolds.
The play is a chamber piece populated by three characters instantly recognisable by football fans and they’ve been very well cast.
Peter Wight’s aging and overweight Yates is a faded, gently paternal figure whose former status as the club’s star player has been gradually eroded by a humiliating spell as their manager and personal tragedy. Despite dedicating his life and soul to the club, he now cuts a lonely and rather sad figure as the lowly kit man, comforted only by his match day rituals and memories; making his nickname ‘Lege’ as a former club legend all the more poignant.
By contrast Daniel Mays plays the vain and strutting manager Jimmy Kidd, whose inflated view of himself as some kind of non-League Jose Mourinho is matched only by the size of his ruthless ambition. Despite his bravado Kidd’s insecurities and desperation in the face of his crumbling marriage and mounting personal debts are clearly visible just below the surface.
Calvin Demba is equally convincing as rising football star Jordan, with a physique that wouldn’t look out of place on any Premier League pitch. He perfectly captures the paradox of self-conscious lack of confidence and defiant arrogance that comes at the cusp of manhood. His character is both morally idealistic and corruptible and we see him wage an internal war influenced by both Yates and Kidd.
As the play opens Yates and Kidd seem to have a difficult and strained relationship but as it progresses it’s obvious that there’s also an underlying affection and respect. Their relationship is tested in full as the The Red Lion’s winning streak is jeopardised when a rival club poaches their best player and Kidd is under pressure from the board. Potential salvation appears in the shape of Jordan, a young player with exceptional promise, and his arrival reignites both men’s passion for the game. It hits Kidd like a drug as he envisions not only glory and success for himself and the team but also a way out of his personal problems. Yates’ response is much gentler and his fatherly concern for the young player is driven by his dream of reviving the spirit of the club’s glory days before they were corrupted by the unscrupulous ethics of Kidd. Over the course of the next three games we see the two older characters battling for control of this boy’s future and, ultimately, their own. Kidd employs Machiavellian tactics to achieve his aims while Yates relies on his word of honour. What neither of them realise is that Jordan is harbouring a secret and troubled past which could wreck the future of all three of them.
At this point of the play I couldn’t help but be reminded of our own wayward and damaged player of recent times, Ravel Morrison, and I felt a new level of sympathy and understanding of the pressures these young players face from diametrically opposed controlling influences.
The first half of the play begins fairly slowly and by the interval it was still difficult to see where it was going. Inevitably Rich and I discussed our views on what we’d seen thus far and I was surprised to learn that he thought there were homoerotic undertones and that Yates’ looks of longing at Jordan were sexually charged. I didn’t get that at all and I thought his yearning was caused by his romantic idealism of the game and a longing to relive his glory days vicariously through the boy. It made me realise that we live in a culture where the sight of an aging, overweight man massaging the lithe muscular body of a young boy in a sporting context can still cause discomfiture among some men and I wondered if that was a typical response? The second half of the play is much more dramatically charged and the tension between the three characters builds, with tragic results.
While I couldn’t fault the authenticity of the performances I found Marber’s plot fairly predictable, to the point of being hackneyed in places and the best plot twist is revealed too early, which impacts on the tension. It is a character driven play and the dialogue sounds genuine to the football fans’s ear. Mays’ intense and manic performance is mesmerising and the perfect foil to Wight’s finely nuanced delivery. It’s clear that Marber is writing about a world he knows intimately and his play is imbued with his passion for the beautiful game. A noticeable leitmotif is the absence of father figures and the pain and scars that the characters bear because of difficult and abusive father/son relationships.
I noticed that some of the audience found the script comical in places but realised that I didn’t share their mirth. I suspect that had something to do with the fact that I’m so deeply inured in the frankly sometimes ridiculous drama of football and that I’m immune to the comedy of its discourse.
During an interview Daniel Mays was asked if non-football fans would relate to the play and he replied:
“Absolutely. I can’t stress that enough. Football is just the gateway. When you get into the second act, it really becomes about these three individual men and the very universal themes of betrayal, loss and ambition. We see how co-dependent they are and how much vulnerability they have. Patrick [Marber] is a master at shining a light on certain aspects of ourselves that we probably wouldn’t share. It’s about how men can wound or heal each other – I find it a profoundly moving and poignant piece.”
Whilst I agree with him on one level I also believe that football fans will find the play more rewarding than those who have no love for the sport. Everybody knows that football is a never ending source for moral debate and this can be used as a metaphor for life. However, I believe that only those who truly love the game are really able to understand its hold over us. These characters speak more deeply to us than to those who are not fans and I think perhaps only we will truly appreciate Marber’s double layer of meaning.
Initially I wondered at Marber’s choice of name for his team and the title of the play, it seemed more redolent of a pub side than a semi-professional club. At the play’s conclusion I realised that the name and heraldic crest is meant to represent Britain. Our glory days are past, our board have sold all our assets to the highest bidder and we are now a feeder club in a morally corrupt system.
Marber’s timing is perfect, as FIFA implodes amid corruption claims this play shows that bribery, exploitation and dishonesty have now reached grass roots and non-League football. It’s a timely reminder that something needs to be done before football reaches the same tragic fate as one of his characters. I fear it could be too late.
Ultimately the essence of the play is a clash between those who pursue an activity because of a belief in its inherent worth and those who regard it simply as a means to an end. Marber doesn’t make the moral judgement, he leaves that to us.
The play isn’t without its faults but the final verdict of two West Ham fans at the end of the evening is that we would recommend it for an entertaining and discussion provoking night out.
The Red Lion is showing at the National Theatre until 30th September