We’re aware that a play about football isn’t the sort of thing we’d usually cover, but Dear England piqued our interest so we thought we’d take a trip to the National Theatre to see what it was all about. Written by James Graham – responsible for the excellent Best of Enemies on the West End last year, and who co-wrote the Olivier-winning musical Tammy Faye with Elton John and Jake Shears – it tells the story of Gareth Southgate’s tenure as England manager. The play stars Joseph Fiennes, who looks remarkably like Southgate, in the lead role.

While football may be the backdrop, there’s a lot more to this production than a chronological recent history of the beautiful game. Unsurprisingly for a piece written by James Graham there’s a lot of politics at play here – with events unfolding between 2016 and 2022 we see a fair amount of the political turmoil that has been occurring during this period, with a variety of references to the premierships of Theresa May, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, and major events including Brexit and the Covid pandemic. There’s also a fair amount of social commentary – Dear England paints a picture of the diversity of thought across the nation.

The play considers a wide range of themes – the psychology of the game, the importance of long-term strategy, how to discover and nurture new talent; there’s far more going on here than simply kicking a ball about. The segments that focus on the game itself are also pretty gripping – penalty shoot outs lend themselves well to dramatisation and really make for edge-of-you-seat viewing. A shout out must also be given to Es Devlin’s incredible set design – it’s quite simple and elegant, yet incredibly eye-catching and sets the various scenes perfectly.

We would be doing this show a disservice if we didn’t acknowledge the light it shines on aspects of football that are rarely visible in daily life. One of the lead characters here is psychologist Pippa Grange (Gina McKee) who plays a significant role in encouraging the teammates to be more open with and considerate of each other, helping to develop trust; we also see glimpses into the games of the Lionesses; the focus here is not just on the men’s team. Time is also made to showcase the current team’s social justice campaigning, whether that’s taking the knee at the start of a match or wanting to wear rainbow armbands in Qatar.

We really enjoyed our evening with Dear England – it is perhaps a little long, weighing in at the best part of three hours, and we’re aware a play about football may not be for everyone. But it tells a compelling story and considers a variety of issues which will resonate with a wide range of viewers, whether or not they have a keen interest in the subject matter. It ticks a lot of boxes: impressive acting, interesting social commentary, and surprisingly funny – well worth a visit.

GAY TIMES gives Dear England – 4/5

More information can be found here.