"Is it illegal? Is it a bung?" talented young semi-pro footballer Jordan asks his manager as dodgy arrangements, "sweeteners," are put in place to facilitate his transfer to another club. "It's football," the gaffer replies. "It's the wild west down 'ere. Unregulated."
Welcome to the world not of corrupt FIFA officials and World Cup bids but grassroots, non-league football. The common link? Brown envelopes stuffed with cash. Lifelong Arsenal fan Patrick Marber's first new play in several years is a three-hander set in the grim changing room of a 123 year-old club somewhere in southern England whose pitch is a "knackered old meadow" with dandelions and even parsley growing out of the mud. Marber himself has first hand experience of non-league footy as a shareholder in Lewes FC, although the play is about a fictional club.
The Red Lion pits loyal, elderly ex-pro John Yates (Peter Wight), who these days does the kits and sweeps the changing room floors, against ambitious, in-it-for-himself manager Jimmy Kidd (Daniel Mays). A decent cup and league run are a way for Kidd to get out and up to the next rung on the ladder of the football business, and if there's a few quid to be made along the way by selling your best player, Jordan (Calvin Demba), with his knee full of steroids, so much the better.
The stench of Deep Heat the audience can smell in the Dorfman auditorium is nothing compared to the smell of filthy lucre that hovers over the beautiful game, from player transfers to a club owner who's intention is apparently to flog the ground to the highest bidder for redevelopment into houses, and launder money through a new, cheap "breezeblock and tin" stadium near the bypass. Such clubs once served their communities; in Marber's play, football innocence has been compromised by people involved only to further themselves.
The three actors and the smelly set are super. The two and a half hours fly by, but not an awful lot actually happens. The subject matter is treated a bit too superficially, the characters caricatures. I would, for example, have liked to see a deeper investigation into Yates' troubled past; all we get is his slightly corny nostalgic reminiscences about a better era. The comedy of Patrick Marber's early works like Closer isn't much apparent here, and the shocking ending is too neat, and too bleak.