The Red Lion (National Theatre, Dorfman)
Patrick Marber's football-centred new play stars Daniel Mays, Peter Wight and Calvin Demba
Patrick Marber is back on song with a beautiful play about the beautiful game. It's a three-way tug o' war in the changing room of a non-league soccer team between an ambitious, unscrupulous manager, Kidd (Daniel Mays), an old-style "legend" of the club, now its kit-man, Yates (Peter Wight), and the new young player, Jordan (Calvin Demba), who might change their fortunes.
He won't make them, for we are at the dog fight level of football where £30 is a meaningful kick-back and the star player's move to a rival club earned him "an extra ton" a week.
Ian Rickson's perfectly cast and perfectly weighted production keeps you guessing, like any good match, right to the final whistle: it's sad, it's true and it's lyrical about the magic of the game.
The time frame in three acts is clever: a few hours before the Saturday game, a few weeks later after a game, and another few weeks later as the power struggles implode. Anthony Ward's scrubby but spacious, airy design preserves the idea of a past in a small-time Southern club with a proud little history.
The hero, really, is the old boy, a great role for Wight, and the second soccer kit-man to have taken the spotlight in the past year - the first was Toby Jones as the Stoke City "legend" in the television docudrama Marvellous.
'Marber's poured so much of his love of the game into this play'
In contrast with that beatific performance, Wight's Yates is not a fantasist, but a nostalgic realist who really did score a celebrated winning goal and who now nurtures the future on the massage table: "You've got to be loose," he tells Jordan, "we shall trick you into a state of nonchalance."
Kidd also has a history in the game but he's edgy and uneasy, with a crumbling marriage (and children) to deal with and a reputation to invent. There is romance, but no illusions. The pitch looks emerald green from a distance. It's really a bog. And Yates's only claim to fame as the manager of the club twenty years ago is that he took them down.
Marber has always acknowledged Pinter as an influence and, sure enough, the play develops as a contest of ownership. Who discovered Jordan? Who will best manage his career, or best make money out of him (this is a mantra of the age)?
And there's one speech of Yates, chillingly delivered by Wight, that sums up the whole tawdry business of the conflict between passion and opportunism in football. This comes from the heart, and expresses the heart of the play. Mays - spidery, mesmeric, confident, with the air of a man who checks himself in the mirror every other second - is floored, and cracks.
Marber was involved in the re-launch of Lewes FC as a community-owned club and is an Arsenal supporter (well, nobody's perfect). He's poured so much of his love of the game into this play while also constructing a compelling drama that moves smoothly into tragic gear in the last act.
And the acting is wonderful. Wight has probably never had such a good leading role on stage. Mays is masterful. And young Demba - who resembles a less frightening version of the Gunners' Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain - is definitely one to watch.
The Red Lion runs at the Dorfman Theatre until 30 September