Tag Archives: Will Close

“Dear England” at the National Theatre

Football is not my thing. But, like a lot of sports, the beautiful game (that’s what people who like it call it, don’t you know) makes good theatre. Director Rupert Goold’s production of James Graham’s new play has a lot of energy and brings out the drama on the field and behind the scenes. Even if sports psychology and penalty shootouts don’t excite you, they work well on stage.

Tracking the England team’s recent history, there’s a neat theatrical parallel as our hero, manager Gareth Southgate, talks of “storytelling”. Using a psychologist, Pippa Grange, and building team spirit has long-term aims to create a new narrative. The duo, by far the main protagonists, prove inspirational, with excellent performances from Joseph Fiennes and Gina McKee that make them easy to root for.

It seems that the team’s problem is expectation and what’s needed is “learning how to lose”. The reasoning is presented clearly and leads to moving moments. Time is spent over Southgate’s own personal trauma from missing a penalty. And emphasis on the players’ youth is smart. If issues of racism and sexism might be explored more, seeing the people behind the players is a sound move.

The football team parallels a theatrical ensemble and here close-knit performances of multiple roles are consistently strong. Such praise comes despite my not appreciating the show’s humour. Nearly every character is a famous face. If, like me, you don’t know them, the audience reaction is baffling. Let’s just report that the loose impersonations go down very well indeed. Will Close’s Harry Kane is a particular standout.

Graham is a political playwright and obviously wants his work to be about more than football. Beneath the team’s problem is the idea of English exceptionalism – thinking we will win despite evidence to the contrary. Hinting at a connection to wider political events does not always convince, and brief appearances from prime ministers seem wasted. But the wish to question what it is to be English, as you are about to represent England, seems sensible enough. Staging the play at the nation’s theatre is fitting.

Like Southgate it seems, Graham wants to raise questions. The play grows in power as a result. A letter by Southgate, which inspires the play’s title and is judiciously quoted, makes big claims – compassion and change are highlighted. The focus is on optimism (which makes a nice change nowadays). Goold’s expansive energy complements this perfectly. Despite not winning the World Cup, the play ends on sense of hope that is bigger than football. And that’s a great goal.

Until 11 August 2023


Photos by Marc Brenner

“Mediocre White Male” and “Bi Bi Baileigh” at the King’s Head Theatre

These two, out of five, shows in the BOYS! BOYS! BOYS! season are part of a program with the billing “bi-boys, bad boys, biographies and bodies”. Both are enjoyable explorations of masculinity.

Mediocre White Male

This strong monologue, written by performer Will Close with Joe Von Malachowksi, develops and twists with skill. The character performs at a tourist attraction, reciting the same lines over the years, inviting questions about history while telling us about his own past. There are two stories then – both about the kind of men described by the title. How much does the past enforce the present? The script and production are well paced. Although less than an hour, the minutes – in a play keen to consider time – go remarkably quickly.

Avoiding too many plot spoilers, the show starts like a stand-up routine with a bold number of bad jokes but turns into something very different. The direction is focused, the design stripped back. This guy doesn’t seem too bad, if a little too stupid; you might even be lulled into sympathy for him. Feeling a generation gap when you are only 30 must be tough! There’s a sting – as you’ll probably expect – but if a touch predictable, this is a tale well told.

Until 2 September 2022

Bi Bi Baileigh

Slight if sweet, writer and performer Isaac Verrall’s show suffers by comparison with Mediocre White Male but still has merit. The twenty something character, whose love life we learn all about, is appealing but not quite as funny as he could be (the best line comes from Trixie Mattel). Verrall’s performance is energetic but nervous – there are stumbles. The lighting and sound design can be tightened. But Verrall is great with the crowd, using the theatre’s seats and getting us on his side. There is a strong sense of character and place in the piece.

Bi Bi Baileigh isn’t exactly rambling… but could benefit from more structure. Two date scenes are a good idea, and well written, but aren’t quite enough to pivot even a short show. There’s strong observation about casual homophobia and loneliness without being maudlin – well done. If the twist about an unexpected encounter arrives too late, there’s a useful message about sexual fluidity that isn’t heard often enough.

Until 10 September 2022