Dear England review, Olivier National Theatre, London

Since 1966, the England men’s football team has had an unerring ability to dash a nation’s dreams, said Andrzej Lukowski in Time Out. So a play about the squad’s supposed “resurrection” under manager Gareth Southgate feels “potentially hubristic” – and at risk of “dangerously overhyping a gifted man who still hasn’t taken home any actual silverware”. 

But fear not. As a playwright, James Graham has long displayed the world-beating form that still eludes England on the biggest stages. He has made “genuinely classic work” out of such unlikely subjects as “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”, and parliamentary whips’ offices in the 1970s. And with “Dear England” – a “wildly entertaining romp” given a pulsating staging by Rupert Goold – he has “hit the back of the net once again”. 

The staging is “thrilling”, and Joseph Fiennes gives a performance of “almost AI-grade exactness” as Southgate, said Quentin Letts in The Sunday Times. Some of the characterisation, however, is cartoonish: Harry Kane, Gary Lineker, Greg Dyke and many others appear in no more than amusing caricature. 

The play’s title, said Susannah Clapp in The Observer, alludes to an open letter Southgate wrote to fans in 2021, pleading for a “more generous” and “interesting view of what the country could be”. Graham gives us a vivid sketch of the mess the team was in before Southgate took over: seldom winning, yet still considering itself a “top talent”. That Britain could be floundering as a result of a similar “sense of inherited privilege” is a point he does not need to batter home. As someone who doesn’t follow football, I came into Dear England feeling at a possible disadvantage. But by rousing the blood and raising the stakes – and showing the possibilities of change – Graham and Goold “won me over”. 

As in any match, “there are some misses”, said Sarah Hemming in the FT. The play packs in too much, covering everything from racism to Covid and Qatar. But overall, it’s a “glorious, generous, rollercoaster” of a play that makes for an “exhilarating” evening.

Olivier, National Theatre, London SEI (020-3989 5455; Until 11 August. Rating ****