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The Red Lion | New Wolsey Theatre

A changing-room drama, written by multi-award-winning Patrick Marber, takes us into the heart of a struggling low-league football club trying to make ends meet. When a gifted young player (Olatunji Ayofe) appears out of nowhere, he soon finds himself stuck between the conflicting ambitions of a former club legend, now reduced to the kit man and the manager, who is in over his head and wildly out of pocket. Loyalty, trust, and friendship are put to the test, forcing everyone to ask the hard questions: Are they more of a defender or an attacker? Which is best for business? And, most predominantly, which takes the most bravery?

We start before the lights even dim, with some subtle scene setting by Crispin Letts as the audience take their seats. He plays the character of Johnny Yates and goes on to become one of the three main roles of the piece. The way we are welcomed into their world before the performance officially commences is very fitting for the ride we then embark on for the following 90 minutes. This is because it mirrors our reality almost exactly. I honestly felt that I could walk down to the local club and witness the entire show live and verbatim - including the way they're dressed. Unfortunately this is both a positive and negative thing as I felt as though I was watching a non-fiction piece without any actual history to learn about. We learn through both facts and imagination, however this show depicted 21st century southern England so accurately, it didn't feel like I needed to devise anything for myself.

One of the ways they do this is through Zoe Hurwitz's impeccable set and costume design, which provides an almost immersive experience of the space. The typical old lighting bulbs that are so tarnished and yellow, the stained sink ledge that holds a half used bottle of soap that has definitely been there for too long, and the health and safety certificate that is pinned on a blue notice board in every community building in Britain. You can almost play snap with the props to see what you have in your own home, or know someone who does. Be this the array of magnets and takeaway menus on the fridge, the grey plastic washing basket from Asda, or the little plastic chairs we all had at primary school. These familiarities allow us to bask in the sensory elements of the play without pulling focus from the storyline playing out.

As demonstrated via the intergenerational dialogue throughout, this is a play for and about all ages (as long as they are above the guidance of 14 years+) . The audience at this particular matinee definitely proved this right, as there was an entire school group while most others in attendance were more mature adults. Sadly, the auditorium was not very full for this performance which contributed to the feeling of unnecessary reactions from the cast at times. It was as though they couldn't quite strike the balance of over and underwhelm, vocal strength and weakness, or level of intention. This isn't helped by the fact that no stakes are clearly established until about halfway in, when we then start to learn everyone's backstory and motives. Once we understand everyone's aims we can begin leaning into the expertly portrayed archetypes in front of us.

The cast are led by Alastair Natkiel who does this job perfectly. I struggle to believe that he is just simply a good actor who did his research - it seems as though he has been surrounded by football managers his whole life to achieve the pacing, intonation and gait that brought Jimmy Kidd to life so well.

Music is a rarity in this play, and is only used during the two big scene changes. These felt a little long and broke me out of that lovely bubble I spoke about, partially because there had been no effort made to conceal the stage management team, or integrate them into the world of Red Lions. It was clear we were watching other real people do their real jobs, rather than what could have been done as another layer to the story. One good element of these sections was the lighting, as it's the only time it really changed at all. Although it is well done during the main body of the piece, it was nice to see some variety from the rainy windows and broken radiator which were all there is to note outside of these moments.

All in all, it's a piece about realising you cannot please everyone, and you have to accept dislike in order to go far. But the counter message suggests it's more important to have a supportive network that keeps you grounded enough not to lose your way and ensure you stay true to yourself. You are left wondering whose side you would be on, and if you actually have to pick a lesser of these two evils, or is there another option entirely? If you enjoy heartfelt, dramatic stories about sport, selfishness, and watching the difference between those who learn from their mistakes and those who repeat them, this one is for you.

Running here in Ipswich until the end of the week (23rd September), you still have time to catch it before they sprint off to The Queen's Theatre Hornchurch for their last 7 shows of the tour which conclude next Saturday evening. For more information and tickets, you can follow the link here.


{AD | gifted} Written by Katie McConnell | Photography by Will Green Photography


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