What makes a good leader? When the unassuming and softly spoken Gareth Southgate was appointed head coach of the England men’s soccer team in 2016, many fans and commentators felt he lacked the kahunas for the role, that he was simply too nice. But in the past seven years he has overseen a remarkable transformation in the England team’s fortunes, making it stronger and more exciting to watch than at any time in recent history.
The ups and downs of Southgate’s tenure are portrayed with a blend of playfulness and moral seriousness in “Dear England,” directed by Rupert Goold, which runs at the National Theater, in London, through Aug. 11. It’s a lively, feel-good romp with plenty of irreverent humor, though the narrative borders on hagiography, and its core message about embracing male vulnerability is labored to the point of soppiness.
The play chronicles the team’s involvement in three recent major tournaments, starting with its surprise run to the semifinals of the 2018 World Cup in Russia; then comes an agonizing defeat by Italy in the Euro 2020 final, followed by an impressive showing, culminating in an unlucky quarterfinal exit, at last year’s World Cup in Qatar.
The on-field action is evoked through dynamic set pieces choreographed by Ellen Kane and Hannes Langolf, in which the players enact key moments in elaborate simulations, complete with slow-motion sequences and freeze-framed goal celebrations. These are kitsch, but mercifully brief, as the bulk of the activity takes place off the pitch: in locker rooms, team meetings and news conferences whose settings are rendered with smart simplicity by the designer Es Devlin.
Joseph Fiennes is outstanding as Southgate, who is portrayed as self-effacing but assertive, an approachable father figure to his young charges. Will Close, as England’s captain and star player, Harry Kane, plays up the striker’s famously laconic manner, providing a bathetic counterpoint to the coach’s earnest rhetoric. Adam Hugill is similarly amusing as the defender Harry Maguire, who is portrayed as a lovable simpleton — not the sharpest tool in the box, but solid and dependable. Kel Matsena delivers a spirited performance as Raheem Sterling, who, along with Bukayo Saka (Ebenezer Gyau), speaks out defiantly against racism after England’s Black players are the targets of abuse.
The principal female character in this necessarily male-dominated lineup is the sports psychologist Pippa Grange (Gina McKee), hired by Southgate to help the players open up about their feelings and overcome self-doubt. When one unreconstructed member of the coaching staff questions the need for her services, she reminds him that psychology has been at the root of England’s past failures: “This is men, dealing, or not dealing, with fear,” she says.
The play’s author, James Graham, is known for political theater, with hits including “Ink” and “Best of Enemies,” and “Dear England” has distinctly activist overtones. Southgate’s mild-mannered disposition, emotional intelligence and leftish politics — he has been supportive of Black Lives Matter and outspoken on mental health issues — are kryptonite to a certain type of reactionary sports jock. So it’s tempting to view his story as a culture-war allegory, pitting touchy-feely liberalism against old-school machismo.
Unfortunately the play leans into this a little too heavily, with pantomimic cameos from several of Britain’s recent Conservative prime ministers — Theresa May, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss — pandering to the assumed prejudices of cosmopolitan London theatregoers in a way that comes off as ingratiating and smug. This is ramped up in the second half, which is considerably less funny, and feels rushed: The 2020 and 2022 tournaments are rattled through at speed, in contrast to the more leisurely pacing before the intermission.
Southgate’s playing career is best remembered for a decisive miss in a penalty shootout against Germany in the semifinal of the 1996 European Championship, played in London, which resulted in England’s elimination from that tournament. A personal redemption narrative forms a compelling subplot the main story, and it’s a cruel irony that Southgate’s England side also lost the final of Euro 2020 in a penalty shootout on home soil. That Southgate has yet to bag a trophy — the England men’s team still hasn’t won a major tournament since 1966 — remains a powerful trump card for his doubters. And so the play’s celebratory tenor feels a little misplaced.
Yet “Dear England” is not so much about sports as it is about culture. The technical and tactical foundations of the England team’s revival are conspicuously underplayed in this telling: The team’s on-field improvement is straightforwardly tethered to a shift in moral values, and we are given to understand that correlation equals causation. You can be fully on board with everything Southgate stands for and still find this cloyingly simplistic.
Through Aug. 11 at the National Theater, in London; nationaltheatre.org.uk