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Dear England Review - Who knew football could be compassionate?

Dear England is a story of the turbulent game of football; and England’s legacy within it. It retells the journey of Gareth Southgate (incredibly portrayed by Joseph Fiennes), as he tackles the role of England manager with revolutionary compassion.

The play follows the real-life timeline of England’s last seven years under new management. Though initially slowed by contextual storytelling, by the second act the pace picks up rapidly. Spotlighted by penalty shootouts that have you holding your breath (literally) and dynamic sequences of movement, directed by Ellen Kane and Hannes Langolf.

Directed by Ruper Goold, this play still has moments of contagious joy and explosive tension in equal measure. As Southgate’s character takes on this “impossible job”, we are reminded of the way in which a team and nation could be brought together amidst the most divisive times of recent history.

eight people standing in blue suits and six people kneeling in front posing for a photo
Joseph Fiennes, Paul Thornley, Lewis Shepard, Albert Magashi, Josh Barrow, Will Close, Ebenezer Gyau, Darragh Hand, Adam Hugill, Kel Matsena, Tashinga Bepete, Ryan Whittle, Gina McKee, John Hodgkinson. Photo By Marc Brenner.

Despite the play’s sharp humour and caricature-esque depiction of one too many political leaders, Dear England doesn’t shy away from addressing the racist, xenophobic elephants in the realm of English football.

From taking a knee in the height of the BLM movement; to the treatment of the Black players following that penalty shootout of 2021. Each topic is dramatised with compassion. Saka (Ebenezer Gyau) delivers a powerfully stoic performance of Saka’s statement in response to the racist abuse he received.

Goold also touches on challenging the connotations associated with the England flag; the question of patriotism vs far right in affiliation with the flag has become increasingly blurred across recent years. Rashford, gracefully embodied by Darragh Hand, steps up to the flag and expresses a discomfort familiar to many people of colour in the UK, and likely related to. At times, these moments felt a little too brief, but an extensive delve into the racism in football would likely be a whole play within itself.

man in the forefront of the image in celebration whilst others behind him look on in disbelief
Joseph Fiennes and Squad. Photo by Marc Brenner

Guided by a stoic Pippa Grange (Gina McKee), both Southgate and the wider team go on to confront their mental health, challenging notions of pride and masculinity. Particularly so for the players, who each journey to confront their own fears and vulnerabilities within a beautiful camaraderie.

There are few things in England that unite the country the way football does, and this unity is felt throughout. For a sport that can be vulgar and ugly in nature, what sits at the heart of this play is a refreshing compassion. Dear England is a piece of theatre which leaves you with a rare feeling of pride to be English.

Dear England runs at the National Theatre until 11 August.


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