The things I know about football could be counted on the fingers of the Venus de Milo, but – apart from Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch, which is being turned into an opera, and maybe Bend it Like Beckham, contemporary plays about it are surprisingly rare, given it’s the National Game.  Or The Beautiful Game if you can bear to sit through Lloyd Webber’s musical.

But I do know things about men’s emotions, and you can learn a great deal more by watching The Red Lion.  Two old muckers run a semi-professional club in the Northern League – John Bowler‘s wonderfully poetic Yates, a deeply loyal ex-player with the stamp of Nobby Stiles, is the ‘kit man’ who does the players’ laundry and bungs them a tenner when they’re short.  Stephen Tompkinson plays manager Johnny Kidd with the ambition of Jose Mourinho and the craftiness of Brian Clough, knowing that success is everything, and willing to make any deal to achieve it.  Personally, he’s a broken man, and his blunt sarcasm and private pain are superbly combined in Tompkinson’s performance.

Enter Dean Bone as a promising youngster from Gateshead who just wants to kick a football.  The men take him under different wings: Yates anointing him with liniment and envisioning a goal-scoring messiah, Kidd seeing him as a boost to ticket sales and a profitable option come transfer season, but the boy has issues of his own – a Christian attitude to cheating, a liberal attitude to painkillers.

What ensues is a tense three-cornered drama, but also a three-dimensional examination of men struggling with conflicted morality.  The strength of Patrick Marber‘s script – revised and improved from an earlier outing at the National and relocated to Tyneside – is that the conflicts spin out of wholly natural and convincing dialogue and situations.

After some time in a writing wilderness, he’s truly back on form.

Match fit, in fact.
Until 2 December