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Review: The Red Lion at the Crescent Theatre, Birmingham – breathing heart into the beautiful game – James Rodger



The Red Lion has arrived at Birmingham’s Crescent Theatre, in a production across two hours which breathes life and heart into the beautiful game.

A three-man play packed with tour-de-force performances, the production – directed by Graeme Braidwood, from Patrick Marber’s source – incorporates themes of passion, loyalty and salvation as it explores the world of semi-pro football.

Against a backdrop of Non-League football, a far cry from the European Super League, Saudi takeovers and Qatar World Cups, the two hour play tells the story of a young player destined for stardom whose manager spots an opportunity through..

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The script is razor sharp, with moments of pathos so deftly crafted they could have come from Andres Iniesta’s right foot.

The show stealer is Brendan Stanley, as Johnny Yates, the club’s kit man and former cult hero who fired them to an FA Cup first round proper victory against a side three leagues higher in his glory days. Stanley saturates the play with heart and compassion, as he looks out for Francis Quinn’s wonderboy starlet when he is thrust into seedy manager Jimmy Kidd’s view.

Kidd is played with an oily smarminess by the terrific Mark Thompson, while Quinn brings plenty of haunted torture and brooding explosiveness to the role of the club’s new prodigy. And it’s glued together effortlessly by Stanley, whose pained eyes and unrelenting belief are borderline breathtaking, providing an arresting performance as good as any you’ll see on the city’s stages this year.

Stanley’s thirst for pints, a tray of chips and pegs off the dressing room wall boast an genuineness so pure you’d be forgiven for thinking he’d played across all the divisions during a career as a journeyman, while Thompson’s manic expressiveness offers a hint there’s a smooth operator and sharp man manager behind the cocky, unsportsmanlike exterior. The costuming is authentic enough that you can almost smell the mud and Deep Heat, but it’s the first-rate performances which make this production a must-see.

The gentle introduction of the first-half – where intentions are laid bare expertly by a tight script and human performances – gives way to a rollicking merry-go-round of a second, all ramped up to a painful denouement as machinations collide. The worlds of Non-League and professional football play off against one another, while the hopes – and secrets – of the starlet add heft to a plot more prominently occupied with Kidd’s predelictions towards the pound.

There’s plenty of foreboding tension as the characters try to navigate an unregulated world which Kidd describes as the “Wild West”, with the climax a timely reminder that while there’s plenty of moral contradictions in our national sport, there’s plenty of heart too.

The Red Lion runs at the Crescent until Saturday, January 29.

Following Friday’s performance there will be an After Dark session which is an opportunity to meet members of the cast and creative team to discuss the production.

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