The Red Lion

Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh

Neil Cooper

Four stars

Things are stirring in the boot room in Patrick Marber’s play about the tug of love and money that exists at ground level in the so-called beautiful game. What happens on the football field may be what counts to the fans, but winning and losing is just as important behind the scenes too. This is especially the case for those in charge of non-league club the Red Lions, who already sound like socialist heroes regardless of the result, with all the inherent contradictions that entails.

The face of the old-school people’s game comes through Johnny Yates, a one-time local hero who sustains his devotion to the club ironing the players’ shirts, all the while keeping an eye out for the next golden boy. Flamboyant club manager Jimmy Kidd is also out to find stars of the future, but is only interested in making a buck on the back of selling them off to a bigger club. Both men find their dream striker in Jordan, the seemingly incorruptible ingénue who might just change both men’s lives.

By setting up such a triangle of need and greed, Marber has created a slow-burning parable of how small-time corruption can have far bigger consequences. Played out on Frances Collier’s dressing room set lined with football shirts, and with Yates and Kidd two sides of the same coin, each scene in Michael Emans’ revival for Rapture Theatre resembles a gladiatorial battle.

The speechifying, particularly between the two older men, is tinged with the poetry of veterans who once knew glory, but who have since been emasculated to the extent they both feel they have something to prove. Delivered by John McArdle as Yates and Brendan Charleson as Kidd, their sparring is invested with a combative largesse, with the ultimate prize being Harry McMullen’s initially naïve Jordan.

Clocking in at a calculated ninety minutes plus injury time, and with Pippa Murphy’s downbeat musical score lending atmosphere, Marber’s play becomes a powerful tactical game in which everybody ends up on the losing side.