Review: The Red Lion (Trafalgar Studios)

Patrick Marber’s 2011 play is revived by Live Theatre, starring Stephen Tompkinson

"Are you going to see that football play, then?" asked my cab driver, as I raced to the theatre with minutes to spare. He turned out to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of all plays on in London. "I wasn't sure about it when I saw it at the National Theatre. Too many words."

Well, I was sure about Patrick Marber's The Red Lion the first time I saw it in 2015. This story, set behind the scenes at a non-league football club, marked the playwright's return to writing after a long period of writer's block. But it also managed to be far more than a football play: instead, it continued Marber's life-long interest in the dynamics of male interaction and definition as two very different men grapple for the soul of a boy and of a way of playing the national game.

So I was very happy to sit down to watch this revival, courtesy of Live Theatre, which reveals it in new lights – yet retains its essential power. Marber has radically rewritten and revised the text, stripping out some of its more melodramatic elements (thankfully) and paring it back to a tight 95 minutes. Director Max Roberts has rethought the tone of the piece; this is a darker and deeper version, full of suppressed anger. It is an impressive shift.

Set in a dingy changing room (design by Patrick Connellan), full of the actual smell of liniment and the metaphorical reek of endeavour, essentially the play pivots on two different views of football – and in turn of society itself.

For Yates, the kitman and former club legend, a man who has the Red Lion mascot tatooed on his heart, football represents hope and aspiration; for ambitious club manager Jimmy Kidd, it's a business, a means by which the talented can better themselves. And, for young Jordan, the gifted player caught between their views, it is just a means of expression, an escape from a violent and unhappy life.

Each man has a driving need: the boy's is to play, Yates has to believe, Kidd needs success. Each uses football as a means of definition. The tragedy of the play is that each man in turn allows his own demons to destroy and distort the possibilities of the game they all love. "You think I'm something special. I'm not," Jordan cries at one point. They all ask too much of sport, without having the moral courage to make equally fierce demands on themselves.

All of this is expressed, as my taxi driver pointed out, in a lot of words – beautifully fluent, pointed and often profound. John Bowler plays up the poetry in Yates' soul, intoning his lines rather than simply saying them. But there is no doubting the pathos in his eyes, as he sacrifices everything in pursuit of his dreams of purity and passion, clenching his fists with the fight of a lion. Dean Bone is appealingly direct as Jordan, cleverly conveying the violence lurking beneath his lost boy demeanour and firm Christian beliefs.

But it is Stephen Tompkinson as the driven manager who makes the strongest impact, bringing a burnished fury to the role. There's a touch of Brian Clough in his gestures, but unlike that feted manager, he's willing to play ugly to win. Yet Tompkinson manages to suggest too that it is only the blank disappointment of this man's life that has made him so desperate to succeed at all costs.

The strength of the play is that all these men are damaged losers, blind to their own weaknesses, seeking to define themselves by something that cannot sustain the weight of their aspirations. In this, it's much more than a play about football; it aspires to describe the difficulties of life itself.

The Red Lion runs at Trafalgar Studios until 2 December.