James Graham’s play, Dear England has received much praise since it opened in June last year. I, however, did not enjoy it as much as the reviews indicated I should have and was disappointed particularly given how much I previously enjoyed Graham’s excellent play This House. It was often mawkish and simplistic while leaning into all the myths of the England football team, complete with the usual entitlement.
At the start of the play, Gareth Southgate, fantastically portrayed by James Fiennes, declares that England ‘had the best players’ during its mid-noughties ‘Golden Generation’, but failed to win anything because of their mentality. This is patently incorrect, the Golden Generation had a mediocre goalkeeper, a genuinely brilliant defence, an unbalanced central midfield (largely through selection decisions), and a one-man attack in Wayne Rooney who was injured at key times in 2004 and 2006. Indeed, it is worth remembering just how much media vitriol and pressure Rooney was the subject of, in no small part because of England’s failings, in a way that was emblematic of the nastiness of noughties popular culture.
I reference the classism that stalked Rooney through much of his career because Dear England displays a slightly more polite middle-England version of this and is often condescending in its presentation of working-class footballers, depicting them as well-meaning simpletons. While this could be cast as an affectionate depiction of adolescent naivety in the case of Bukayo Saka eating a Twix when first meeting Gareth Southgate, it carries differently when it is Harry Maguire being portrayed as a general oaf. Even when the play attempts to turn the tables on the audience with a speech from Harry Kane in the second half pointing out how the audience have been mocking him for how he speaks, it undermines this a few scenes later by having him revert to idiocy for laughs when he says, in a rallying speech before the quarter final against France in the 2022 World Cup, that this is the England’s team Waterloo before querying “we won that one, right?”
This largely infantilising presentation of adult multi-millionaires is emblematic of a wider problem in Dear England, it wants the audience to have the same affection for the England players and this England team as Graham has said he does. Dear England is not interested in complexity. For instance, Raheem Sterling (another victim of tabloid nastiness) has been a brilliant advocate for anti-racism, and was also sent home from the England team for assaulting teammate Joe Gomez. Harry Maguire helped set up food distribution networks in Sheffield during the Pandemic, and also has a pending retrial over a suspended sentence for aggravated assault and attempted bribery in Mykonos. Jordan Henderson, a key figure in promoting the Rainbow Laces campaign has, since the play was released, subsequently undermined his status as an LGBTQIA+ ally with his move to Saudi Arabia. This was followed by apparent bewilderment at the subsequent backlash from Henderson.
Equally, despite the play correctly identifying football’s machismo as burdensome and pernicious, there is no reference made to mens football’s complicated relationship with women instead (perhaps reflecting the real-world priorities of professional sport) it is only the negative impacts on players that are considered as this makes them more sympathetic. Interestingly, Kyle Walker, one of the most important players of the Southgate era, receives no mention at all, and nor do his escapades. Essentially, one of the implicit messages of the play is that it’s ok for male athletes to be a dick as long as they are reflective about it afterwards and talk about how hard it was. Even Southgate, who in the play is a moral loadstar, has had to change his approach recently. The need to present footballers as either good or bad and not complex human beings is quite possibly the consequence of a sports media that does not really do nuance, though it is a shame that the play falls into it and it undermines its more sensitive moments.
This is clearly a play written by a fan excited by the opportunity to love their team again. Graham constructs a completely uncomplicated version of the England team and manager. In one sense, this is fine, after all a play is fiction and the Gareth Southgate on stage makes no claims to be the real Gareth Southgate. However, even if we take Dear England on its own terms and put to one side its mawkish presentation of the England football team, it still doesn’t work.
Too often, as with the scene of the players discussing what the England flag means to them, this simplicity leads not to beauty but to banality. Moreover, the second half feels exceedingly rushed. The logical endpoint of the penalty shootout defeat in the final of the 2020 Euros was forsaken for a rushed segment set at the World Cup in Qatar that itself fails to wrestle with the myriad issues of the tournament being held there. The result is lacking in any real emotional punch, only going as far as to say it was unfair to put Harry Kane in the position where he could be booked for wearing the rainbow armband. Graham has said that he wanted there to be a ‘father/son’ relationship between his Southgate and Kane, and liked the symmetry of Southgate’s penalty miss in Euro ’96 and Kane’s miss in 2022, but this does not come across in the moment or over the course of the play.
The positives are that, as one would expect with anything that runs at the National and in the west end, the acting in the play is very good, the choreography sharp, and the stagecraft (mainly the use of sound and light) creates a fantastic atmosphere and transports the audience to precise moments on the pitch. However, on a textual basis, the play is mediocre, and one can only assume its excessively warm reception is built on whimsical nostalgia for the 2018 World Cup when an England team triumphed against expectation to beat all the minnows it faced before ultimately losing to the first decent passing side it played. If you want to relive that then Dear England is the play for you, if not, then manage your expectations accordingly.