Tag Archives: Daniel Mays

“The Red Lion” at the National Theatre

I’ve no interest in football, and I can barely understand how anyone has. But the first play by Patrick Marber in eight years has to be seen. OK, sport can make good drama. And Marber uses what he calls the “dreaming game” to look at themes of loyalty, masculinity and society. But the real shock is that this play has changed my mind about soccer: the passion is so convincing, it’s contagious.

Don’t worry, I’m not going out to a match or anything. But the three ages of man we meet in the changing room of a non-league club – the kind we are told is like a thousand others – are believable despite taking their sport so seriously. Although it contains a fair few jokes, The Red Lion is a serious play, about elation but mostly desperation.

These are great characters and it’s heart wrenching to see this trio flounder. Each speech changes the focus of the play with fluidity – each role becomes, literally, the playmaker by turns. And I am reliably informed each man is instantly recognisable. Taking along my sole football fan friend was my game plan.

THE RED LION national theatre
Peter Wight

First on stage is the club’s Kit Man, a former legend, whose history is troubled. He’s said to “drink too much, think too much and feel too much”. Peter Wight brings out the role’s layers, handling the humour precisely: his devotion to the team is religious, which gets laughs at first… but has the most serious consequences.

Daniel Mays plays the club’s on-the-make manager, with the “courage to be despised”. He speaks in clichés: take his boast at being a bad loser, “I’ll kick a puppy. I’ll kick you.” But with May’s expert delivery, and Marber’s masterly exposition, the character intrigues against the odds.

THE RED LION national theatre
Calvin Demba

The object of both men’s adoration is a talented youngster played by Calvin Demba. Whether they see him as a commodity or some kind of salvation, a contrast made subtle by the plot, they each want to use him. But the kid has a past of his own. Where innocence or purity lie is a rich seam in the play.

Faultlessly directed by Ian Rickson, who gives this brilliant text every chance, The Red Lion has a melancholy streak that stops and starts play. Footballers are said to have three deaths, at different stages of their careers, but we see more than that here. A genuine love of the game drives Marber, but machinations in the club clearly have wider parallels. What’s searched for is a player with “aggression, technique and guile” – Marber’s writing has all three. If theatre had a transfer season, this would be the play to bid for.

Until 30 September 2015

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photos by Catherine Ashmore

“Mojo” at the Harold Pinter Theatre

Jez Butterworth’s play, Mojo, was a huge hit in 1995 for the Royal Court and its revival at the Harold Pinter Theatre is a welcome event. The première work from a playwright destined for huge success, it’s set in gangland Soho in the late 1950s, with the owner of a nightclub and would-be music promoter murdered. Menace is continually offset by ineffectual gangsters, and then reinjected by mental instability and manic tension. It’s a playwright’s script, full of inspiration from modern masters, with the language poetically reflecting the new craze for rock and roll. A fine plot, superb characters and serious comedy secure wide appeal. There’s high drama, breathtaking suspense and laughs out loud from a sense of humour that is darkly, madly, deeply funny.

Daniel Mays (Potts) and Rupert Grint (Sweets) in Mojo. Photo credit Simon Annand
Daniel Mays and Rupert Grint

For this revival, the focus is sure to be on a stellar cast. And they don’t disappoint. Brendan Coyle takes time off Downtown Abbey to play the man ready to step into his assassinated boss’s shoes, claiming possession of the club while trying, and failing, to control his staff. He has to deal with Sweets and Potts, a pill-popping double act played by Rupert Grint, of Harry Potter fame, who makes a fine West End debut and can’t be blamed for being upstaged by the excellent Daniel Mays, who has the audience in the palm of his hand. It’s just as hard to ignore rising star Colin Morgan who gives a superb performance as another employee. In common with his colleagues, Morgan shows the thin skin underneath the machismo and how these men see the club, with all its power politics, as a home and family as well as career.

But it is Ben Whishaw who is the real star of the night. In the role of Baby, abused son to the murdered owner, and a damaged character who bursts into song and runs around with a sword, he manages to make both activities just as frightening. It’s his finest performance since Hamlet back in 2004 and makes you ponder about connections between the two plays. Avoiding plot spoilers, it’s fair to say something is rotten with the state of the nightclub and, if this insane heir-apparent isn’t indecisive, the court politics and innocent victims ring bells. It’s a resonance that indicates how rich Butterworth’s play is – concerning men, their place in the world and with one another, that run deep. This Mojo is box-office magic that lives up to expectations and really is as good as it sounds.

Until 8 February 2014

Photos by Simon Annand

Written 16 November 2013 for The London Magazine

“The Same Deep Water As Me” at the Donmar Warehouse

Following the success of Nick Payne’s award-winning Constellations, Josie Rourke, artistic director at the Donmar, has the coup of presenting his new play, The Same Deep Water As Me. Set in a ‘no-win-no-fee’ lawyers’ office in Luton, it’s a departure for the young writer, moving from intimate personal dramas into the wider world of work. Payne tackles big issues with humour and intelligence and deserves great success.

Superbly directed by John Crowley, the play’s plot, an attempt to swindle large companies via insurance claims, serves to explore the theme of lying. The rather desperate Kevin suggests the idea to his old school friend Andrew, who has made good as a lawyer. In a bravura performance, Daniel Mays takes the lead, deceiving his character’s older colleague Barry and renewing an attachment to his first love, now Kevin’s wife, Jennifer (a charming Niky Wardley). Payne’s strong characterisations emerge as they become embroiled in the scam.

There are some marvellous one-liners here, some of the funniest you’ll hear on stage in London at the moment, and the delivery from Marc Wotton’s Mephistophelean Kevin is superb. Nuanced observations on class are used to particularly great effect when a claim is contested in court: Peter Forbes and Monica Dolan play a sleek legal establishment magnificently and Isabella Laughland’s cameo as a lorry driver is arresting (if a shockingly small role for such a talented actress).

Payne’s writing has a strange modesty that makes for a unique voice – a joke denied a punch line, unstated emotions suggested with restraint – and surely many a dramatist would have opted for the more dramatic criminal court instead of a civil one? Playing down has a purpose: raising questions about access to justice is topical but, providing a further satisfying weight, a Kantian universalizability shows that this is deep water we really are all in together.

Until 28 September 2013

www.donmarwarehouse.com

Photo by Johan Persson

Written 12 August 2013 for The London Magazine