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Your donation will support The Ithacan's student journalists in their effort to keep the Ithaca College and wider Ithaca community informed. Your contribution will allow us to purchase equipment and cover our annual website hosting costs.

‘Dear England’: Theater for jocks, message for all

Joseph+Fiennes+and+the+cast+of+Dear+England+live+in+Londons+National+Theater.+Photographed+by+Marc+Brenner.
Courtesy of Dear England’s Official Website
Joseph Fiennes and the cast of “Dear England” live in London’s National Theater. Photographed by Marc Brenner.

Athletes struggling with the pressure of sports is no new discovery. The anxiety of exceeding the already high expectations of the fans is the subject of multiple stories we’ve heard over and over again. Playwright James Graham takes this and gives it a spin, telling us the story of England’s male football team who, despite being from the country that pioneered the sport, seemed to have a curse of bad luck that they just could not break. 

A wave of change starts in 2016 when Gareth Southgate (Joseph Fiennes), who has one of the worst track records for penalties in the world, accepts to step in as the new manager for England’s football team. The shift in the story and in the scene of English football happens when Southgate brings in psychologist Pippa Grange to assist with training sessions, encouraging players to face their fears in hopes to better their performances on the field. 

“Dear England” premiered at the National Theatre in London, where it ran from June 20 to Aug. 11 in 2023. In August 2023, the National Theatre announced that the play would transfer to the Prince Edward Theatre in London’s West End for a limited 14-week run, from Oct. 9 in 2023 until Jan. 13 in 2024. It is also available for viewing in select dates in theaters across the nation. In Ithaca, “Dear England” was available for two screenings at Cinemapolis on Jan. 25 and Jan. 27.

“Dear England” follows the team’s triumphs and falls as they prepare and participate in three major tournaments; the surprising semifinals at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, the disheartening loss in the 2020 European Championship at Wembley Stadium and the quarterfinals of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. The play tackles the effects of emotional challenges the team faces from stressful penalties to the racist controversies experienced by Black players in the 2020 Euro tournament.  

From the get-go, choreographers Ellen Kane and Hannes Langolf bring the on-field action to life, as well as the complex conversation happening among the media and fans. Their marvelously choreographed, dynamic set pieces help the audience smoothly transition with the story as we explore not only the reaction to the announcement of Southgate’s management but also the grandeur of the players in the games. The set makes use of the theater’s revolving stage and technology in a way that brings the field to the stage with no need for extravagant props or even fake grass. 

“Dear England” portrays a heartwarming and uplifting story, that while being somewhat biographical, is submerged in that ‘movie magic’ sweetness with a touch of cheeky humor. Despite some of the strongest jokes in the play being at the expense of Britain’s public figures, they are still enjoyable for the American audience. The play mimics a good football match with its rhythm. The first act is filled with strong drama that keeps the viewer at the edge of their seat, craving for more as the intermission rolls around. The second half wraps it up charmingly with the increase in pace shifting the drama focus to the ‘squad’ on the field and their interactions in the locker room and with the fans. 

Fiennes portrayal of Southgate is earnest and modest but also assertive. Throughout the play, the audience sees him become a father-like figure. Despite Southgate’s ubiquity, we see merely fragments of what truly is happening beneath the surface as the team changes until very late into the second half. Fiennes’ performance is balanced by Will Close’s portrayal of England’s captain, Harry Kane. Close accentuates Kane’s wellknown monosyllabic expressions, which causes several outbursts of laughter among the audience and serves as a magnificent tool to drive home the most serious scenes toward the climax of the play.

Director Rupert Goold doesn’t just translate this play onto the stage, but makes it work even through the theater screens, where audiences gasp, hold their breaths and even clap as if watching these games for the first time. With “Dear England,” Graham writes a love letter to not only England’s men football team but to male vulnerability everywhere. He addresses the impact fear can have in sports careers but also in everyone’s life. Graham experiments with the idea that, only when facing these fears are teams truly able to form a sense of trust beyond the field and each player’s success.

Viewers who went to watch “Dear England” because of the sport and the country will not be disappointed. Viewers who stumble upon it with no previous context will be pleasantly surprised. They might even come out googling the stats for the upcoming 2024 World Cup, looking to see where England’s men’s football team stands. The play, while using the story of this football team as a vehicle, is more concerned with the cultural issues surrounding it and makes a remarkable argument to why mental health and self-care are universally essential.

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Mariana Contreras, Assistant Life and Culture Editor
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    Victoria de PerettiFeb 1, 2024 at 9:01 pm

    Great article, the vibe of the play bleeds through perfectly! And amazing title 😉

    Reply