Theatre review: The Red Lion, Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh

Brendan Charleson and John McArdle in Red Lion
Brendan Charleson and John McArdle in Red Lion
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THERE’S something reassuring about the shape of Patrick Marber’s 2015 play The Red Lion. It offers a single, substantial set (by Frances Collier) showing the changing room of a semi-professional football club in the English Midlands, three male characters locked into a tense, shifting pattern of co-operation and conflict, and 95 minutes of talk, divided into three scenes set on three winter Saturdays.

The Red Lion, Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh ****

And out of this rock-solid dramatic structure, Marber aims to construct a state-of-the-nation drama about just how much of English life – including its passion for football – can now be bought for hard cash, and how much of it is still shaped by higher principles of fairness, courage, heroism and even the sheer love of beauty, as embodied in “the beautiful game”.

It’s a great theme; and Michael Emans’s heartfelt and meticulous production features three memorable performances, from newcomer Harry McMullen as Jordan, the new young footballer with the talent to achieve greatness, Brendan Charleson as the gifted but financially dodgy manager Kidd, and former Brookside star John McArdle in an outstanding performance as Yates, the elderly former player who once had his moment of greatness on the pitch, but now volunteers as strip-washer and unofficial coach.

The play’s problem is that instead of keeping its eye on the prize of a short drama about modern England, it often becomes slightly distracted by the complex specifics of football. All three characters are complicated and subtle in their response to the game, and the cash it can generate. Kidd, the money-grubbing manager, is also passionately in love with the game. Jordan, the kid with Christian principles, is not above bending the rules when it suits him. Even Yates, the symbol of old-time local identity and club loyalty, sometimes seems to love Jordan and his potential even more than he loves the club; and that mixture of motives produces some dialogue scenes that are just too long, shouty and confusing for comfort.

Football is now such an iconic aspect of national life, though – in England, Scotland and across the world –that Marber’s play remains an important reflection on how the game both symbolises and influences what is left of our collective life; and the cheers of the audience at Musselburgh on Saturday, on the second date of a long Scottish tour, suggest that it has the power to reach audiences for whom football usually provides all the drama they need, every weekend in life.

JOYCE MCMILLAN

Howden Park, Livingston and the Tolbooth, Stirling, this week, and on tour across Scotland until 22 June.