DEAR ENGLAND- a review (guest blog by Adam Smith)
Gareth Southgate’s turbulent timeline as England manager is dramatically chronicled in ‘Dear England’, the new play which premiered in the National Theatre this summer, and shortly to transfer to the West End. Reaching a semi-final and final in his first two competitive tournaments as manager, Southgate’s England team give the country something it had seemingly lost when it came to international football- belief. His journey through football is recounted beginning with the agony of his playing days, to England manager, to a respected and revered waistcoat-wearing role model. Still suffering from the heartbreak of Euro 96’ where he played and lost against West Germany, Gareth Southgate is determined to galvanise a despondent England side and transform them in every sense of the word, both on and off the pitch. While the old guard amongst the England camp squabble over tactics and personnel, the play covers Southgate’s forward thinking initiatives which focus on the mental side of the game, notably addressing England’s dire penalty shootout record. This represented a challenge not just for England but a personal issue for Southgate, who openly admits that he had never forgiven himself for missing his fateful spot kick almost 30 years ago.
There is a distinct emphasis on the significance of mental health in the men’s game, which is related to the audience through common experiences and feelings, including fear of failure, self-acceptance and mental resilience. The sports psychologist featured in the play offers ideas on how to combat these issues, an approach which was entirely new to the players although largely de-stigmatised in conversations taking place today; the England team had clearly lacked this type of support prior to Southgate’s arrival.
The mental struggles of the players are depicted as heightened by the rise of social media, despite Southgate’s best efforts to shield them from criticism and instead promote ideas of togetherness. Again, this is linked to the personal scars he bears from his penalty miss where he suffered from feelings of extreme loneliness and isolation. The play shows the brutal side of the game, the ruthless agenda-setting role of tabloid media, and the taboo nature of many big issues in football, which persist in the modern day yet are still not talked about often enough. These ongoing struggles make for some very sorrowful moments in a play which is also punctuated with light humour to keep audience members from bursting into tears or perhaps losing interest. Ironically, humour is likely one of the few coping mechanisms which some footballers are armed with to deal with the more mentally taxing parts of the professional game, and the adversity and pressure which comes with it.
The play paralleled with the most prominent political stories which have taken place thus far during Southgate’s tenure as manager, in particular the Black Lives Matter movement was a focus. Given the inextricable link between England’s battle against racism and the fallout following England’s Euro 2021 heartache, it was fitting that the play give insight into how Southgate and the squad attempted to deal with online hate, abuse with little support from the establishment. Southgate in the real world is an outspoken individual with a strong moral compass, which the actor and script captured well in ‘Dear England’.
Overall, I was impressed with the accuracy of the performance. The play is advertised as having included a great deal of data and research, and I am inclined to agree. The core message of the performance is simple but irrefutable- to be kinder, and beyond that the story is still well layered with underlying themes of what it means to compete, what it means to win, and most importantly of all, what it means to be English.
Adam Smith, July 2023