When Patrick Marber got involved with his local non-league football team, he wasn’t looking to write a play about it. As it is, when it was first seen in 2015, The Red Lion became one of Marber’s biggest hits since his early plays such as Closer and Dealer’s Choice caught the 1990s zeitgeist. The Red Lion, however, is a grown-up play of a different kind, as Rapture Theatre’s revival should make clear when it goes out on tour next week.
The company’s series of away away games go further afield than Marber’s beloved East Sussex based Lewes FC have ever ventured. This is unlike his ‘first’ team, multi-nationally owned big-hitters, Arsenal, who went global even before the north London club made the move from Highbury to the club’s home since 2006 at the Emirates Stadium. It is such a disconnect between big business and community-based clubs like Lewes FC that fires The Red Lion.
“It was a surprise to me I came to write the play,” says Marber on a Saturday morning the day before Arsenal go down 3-0 to Leicester City, while Lewes finish their season with a 0-0 draw against AFC Hornchurch in front of a crowd of 611. “I got involved with Lewes FC around about 2009, and over the next couple of years worked quite hard for the club. At the time, the people I was working with said I’d get a play out of it, but I said it was never going to happen. Then when I came off the board, I found there was something I wanted to say about football, and about how football relates to the wider world politically.”
The Red Lion sets itself in the dressing room of a small town club not a million miles away from Lewes, where a hot-shot striker is torn between the dreams and ambitions of a local hero kit-man who has given his life and soul to the club, and an ambitious manager on the make. Such a self-contained setting is itself indicative of the tug of love Marber was forced to square up to when Lewes FC was saved by a fan-based buy-out.
“The play crept up on me,” he says, “and it took a while to write. The way it’s done seems so simple, but it took a while to find the form. It seems logical now having three characters, but there was a part of me that wanted to write something with twenty characters and have it set throughout the entire season.”
Football is clearly in Marber’s blood, and The Red Lion is in part a reaction to the gentrification of the beautiful game over the last few decades.
“I’ve watched Arsenal all my life,” he says. “Then in my thirties I started playing football to keep fit. Then I had children, and they started playing, and me and my then eight-year-old son started going to watch Lewes, and I just thought, what an amazing game this is, that you can go through different generations experiencing it. So writing the play was love. Love for the game and love for what it’s given me over the years. With Lewes, I got to know all these old football managers, and through talking with them, I realised what football was, what politics was, and what society was.”
Marber may have moved away from Lewes geographically, but the club still holds a place in his heart, and he still keeps an eye on how they’re doing.
“I still feel very emotionally attached to Lewes,” he says. “We saved the club, and even though I’m back living in London now, it will always be my second club. They’ve had an up and down season this year. It’s the club’s first season in the premier division of the Isthmian League, but I think they’ve done alright.”
It is here the differences between amateur and professional football become more marked. In non-league teams like Lewes FC, “The alignment between the supporters and the club is much greater,” according to Marber. “This is my big problem about big league football, because it’s become this mega-corporate business, and I feel very sad about that.”
The changes at Arsenal are a particular grievance.
“I mourn the loss of Highbury,” says Marber. “These great stadiums matter. They matter deeply. I’ve never felt quite as much in love with Arsenal once we moved. I still go, but I loathe the owners for what they’ve done to the club. I used to have a share in the club, but I had to sell it in a compulsory purchase sort of thing, and any sense of community there was, for me at least, has been lost.”
The Red Lion, then, is a reminder that football was, and arguably still is, the people’s game.
“I suppose my message is really to football supporters,’ says Marber. “We bought our football club and saved it, and the play is a plea for more supporter involvement. There’s an illusion of that with all the various schemes that the big clubs have started, but ultimately the power lies with the club’s owner, and if you don’t engage with the supporters, it’s over.”
The Red Lion, Palace Theatre, Kilmarnock, May 8-9; Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh, May 11; Howden Park, Livingston, May 16; Tolbooth, Stirling, May 18; Motherwell Theatre, May 20; Beacon Arts Centre, Greenock, May 23; Lanark Memorial Hall, May 24; Harbour Art, Irvine, May 25; Eastwood Part, Giffnock, May 26; Village Theatre, East Kilbride, May 28; Ryan Centre, Stranraer, May 31; Theatre Royal, Dumfries, June 1; Byre Theatre, St Andrews, June 7-8; Falkirk Theatre, June 13; Adam Smith Theatre, Kirkcaldy, June 15; Theatre Royal, Glasgow, June 18-22.
Patrick Marber first came to prominence performing alongside Chris Morris on radio news satire On the Hour, and with Steve Coogan on Knowing Me, Knowing You. He also appeared in both shows’ TV spin-offs, The Day Today and Knowing Me, Knowing You…with Alan Partridge.
As a playwright, Marber won the 1995 Evening Standard Award for Best Comedy for his debut work, Dealer’s Choice, first seen at the National Theatre. He won the same award for his second stage play, Closer, also produced at the National Theatre, in 1997. A film version, directed by Mike Nichols and starring Julia Roberts, Jude Law, Natalie Portman and Clive Owen, was released in 2004.
The same year as Dealer’s Choice, After Miss Julie was a TV version of Strindberg’s play updated to 1945 Britain. A stage adaptation was first performed at the Donmar in 2003.
Other plays include Howard Katz (2001) and Don Juan in Soho (2006). He also co-wrote the screenplay for David Mackenzie’s film, Asylum (2005), and was Oscar-nominated for his screenplay for Notes on a Scandal (2006).
As a director, Marber oversaw the multiple-Olivier nominated 2016 revival of Tom Stoppard’s lay, Travesties. He has also directed productions of Blue Remembered Hills by Dennis potter, The Old Neighbourhood by David Mamet and Harold Pinter’s play, The Caretaker. In 2018 he directed a production of Eugene Ionesco’s Exit the King.
With Peter Curran, Marber also co-writes BBC Radio 4’s series, Bunk Bed.
The Herald, May 4th 2019