Set in the dressing room of a Northern league semi-professional football team, The Red Lion is an exploration of ambition and loyalty, shrouded in (sometimes toxic) masculinity. After a sold-out run at Live Theatre, the revised play by Patrick Marber comes to Trafalgar Studios in a bold and powerfully acted production.

After finding himself saving Lewes F.C. from bankruptcy in 2014, Marber started writing with the hopes of shining a light on community and belonging. The effort comes off well, and the strength of the new version lies both in the writing and in the prowess of its actors. John Bowler, Dean Bone and Stephen Tompkinson deliver impressively poignant performances, rescuing a story that could otherwise easily alienate a big cut of their audience.

Stephen Tompkinson, Dean Bone & John Bowler (image courtesy of Mark Douet)

The arrival of Jordan (Bone) marks an explosion in the vicious ambitions of Kidd (Tompkinson), the manager, and the protective but suspicious advice of the old-glory-turned-kitman Yates (Bowler). While Kidd would do anything to keep the club (and himself) afloat, Yates tries to warn the promising football star with a muddled past of the dangers of the profession. The characters have a passionate, yet treacherous, drive and are all seemingly unafraid of doing what it takes to reach their goals, event if that means cheating or pointing the finger.

Dean Bone & Stephen Tompkinson (image courtesy of Mark Douet)

Marber’s writing is engaging and subtle. His twists and turns in the language are sophisticated in their simplicity, and find fertile ground in Max Roberts’ direction, as well as the actors themselves. While Bone is wise beyond his years as Jordan, Tompkinson shows the sage signs of an existence invested in the sport to the detriment of his own personal life. “I’ve got no trade. I’m an idiot”, he reflects when push comes to shove and he finds himself being accused by the board of the club. The shadow of Bowler’s Yates looms large on the manager, who perhaps sees the threats of the man’s past and is terrified by them. The two men build an intriguing chemistry, which develops into a fascinating relationship between the characters and gives Tompkinson the chance to deliver a stunning performance.

Stephen Tompkinson & John Bowler (image courtesy of Mark Douet)

Patrick Connellan‘s design channels the run-down vibe of a well-loved dressing room with delicate and passionate details: the white brickwork and small sink recall hours of locker-room banter, with rusty neon lights and a worn-out massage bed as companions. Roberts’s direction of The Red Lion is sharp and fast-paced, even though it sometimes shows the strain of a single-setting play. Focusing on the thirst for glory and the ferocious business of the game, the vulnerability of the characters is mostly overpowered by their masculinity and the need to be at the helm. Even when they break apart, their virility and machismo have the upper-hand, resulting in their ultimate fall.

 

★★★★☆

To read more about The Red Lion, which plays Trafalgar Studios until 2 December 2017, follow the company on Twitter (@TheRedLionPlay) or visit the venue website – www.atgtickets.com