Rules for Living got an 8pm start time in the Dorfman, word was this was an accident, caused by underestimating the run time. Well either that was a lie and shows are going to stick to the later time slot there regardless of how late that makes the finish, or the National have got really bad at judging running times because The Red Lion has an 8pm start time for a show of similar length. This is the centrepiece of Operation Get As Much As Possible Out of Patrick Marber Before His Writer's Block Returns, his first new play in 9 years. It's partly inspired by Marber's experience helping a failing football club avoid closure, and suggests he finds as much to dislike in football people as he does in humanity in general. The red lion is the logo of an unnamed non-league club not all of whose players get paid, leaving them open to the risk that as soon as they find a decent player, a professional club can easily swoop in to poach him with a better offer.
Kidd (Daniel Mays) has been manager for a couple of years, in which time he's rescued the team from the doldrums and led them to a winning streak. He now thinks he's found one crucial ingredient that can take them to the top, in new recruit Jordan (Calvin Demba,) a gifted player but one who's mysteriously never played for a club before.
But Kidd's interest in Jordan may have more to do with his own personal gain than the good of the club, as Yates (Peter Wight) recognises: He's been part of the club all his life, first as a good player, then as a disastrous manager, now content to look after the team's kit. He's never taken to the spivvy Kidd, who has as little respect for the rules of football as Marber has for the rules of Only Connect, so now the story becomes a battle between the two men over Jordan, and by extension over the soul of the club.
Just by casting Mays in a role you know there's going to be something shifty about him, and Kidd is indeed a calculating figure out for himself, who doesn't have the apparent love for the game of the older and younger men. But what with high-level corruption in FIFA being back in the headlines, it's hard to entirely dismiss his argument that he's only creaming off peanuts compared to what the high-ups use the game for. Yates is a warmer, more sympathetic character, but it increasingly feels like his genuine love for the game has destroyed him. And Demba continues to be quietly charismatic as Jordan, whose principles are loudly announced but flexible when it comes down to it, and who's hiding a few secrets of his own.
The Red Lion has strong moments but Ian Rickson's production feels oddly static in pace: Even as events in the changing room where the whole play is set get more charged, the tone stays flat, which may be in part due to the lack of incidental music (Stephen Warbeck is credited as composer but the only music is during scene changes, and the play consists of three long scenes.) Like Anthony Ward's naturalistic set, the world of football Marber describes is a grubby one, where even at a level where everyone should just be in the game for the fun of it, self-interest is what's really the first concern. It suggests that 9 years away haven't dulled the playwright's misanthropic edge, which once again gets in the way of really engaging with the play.
The Red Lion by Patrick Marber is booking in repertory until the 30th of September at the National Theatre's Dorfman.
Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes including interval.