Actor John Bowler gets to grips with the big issues behind the beautiful game in Patrick Marber’s The Red Lion

‘I’m personally not that much of a dedicated football fan, though I do watch the occasional game,’ confesses actor John Bowler as we discuss the intense passion and dedication inspired by the sport on the eve of his first appearance in Patrick Marber’s The Red Lion at Trafalgar Studios. ‘But the variety of characters that the sport attracts, and the relationships between them, are quite fascinating. You could certainly say that football magnifies life – with its varied moral viewpoints and scenarios played out around loyalty, ambition, trust, tolerance, sacrifice and so on.’

This is clearly a perspective shared by celebrated playwright Marber who, in The Red Lion focuses on the intricate dynamics of the relationship between three characters representing different generations within the sport, whose paths cross at a non-league football team in the North East of England.

‘The potential of exploring these complexities certainly made me curious. Not to mention, Marber is one of the most amazing contemporary writers for the stage, so I knew it would be a worthwhile experience, even before I signed up,’ he explains. Bowler is most known to audiences for his TV work, primarily as P.C. Roger Valentine in ITV’s The Bill, among many other drama series, including DCI Banks where he met Stephen Tompkinson. ‘It was actually Stephen who sowed the seed with me, just by chance, telling me he was going to be doing the play later in the season. It made me curious to find out more, and I ended up auditioning.’

Funny, bleak and intimate – perfect programming for Trafalgar Studio 2

The production, directed by Max Roberts, is transferring to Trafalgar Studios after a sold-out run in Newcastle earlier in the year. The entire narrative, set within the dressing room of the club, and condensed slightly from the original staging, runs in three acts with no interval.

In the play, Bowler takes the role of veteran Yates, the dedicated, well-meaning but misguided kit-man, once a promising player himself but now content with looking after the menial day-to-day tasks of the club. He shares the stage with Stephen Tompkinson as Kidd, the ambitious, unstable team manager and Dean Bone as Jordan, the troubled young player who might just be the one to propel them all into a golden future.

‘Yates is a perfect manifestation of that wise saying, ‘the older you are, the better you were’, and being of a certain age myself, I understand now where he’s coming from,’ he laughs.

‘It’s a complex journey for the three characters, but it can also be pretty funny, even while being quite bleak in its reality. It’s a fine balance.’

‘And it’s also a very intimate setting, which works particularly well when staged somewhere like Trafalgar Studios. So I’m afraid you have no choice,’ he exclaims, ‘as the audience, you are pretty much sitting right in the changing room with us for the duration!’

Football is just the starting point for fascinating questions of morality and character

Between the sports analysis and the jests, Bowler is also keen to stress that this play isn’t just about football.

‘We see three very different men, across three generations, who share the same ambition but come at it from different viewpoints. This particular coming-together might be sparked by the lure of football, but it also explores human frailty in a more widespread sense, and how we can crack when we are pushed too far.’

‘So you really don’t need to know much about football to be gripped, and you certainly don’t need to be passionate about it. In fact, some of the nicest feedback I received from the audience, when we staged this in Newcastle, was from a group of ladies who knew nothing about the sport at all but were simply moved by the circumstances and impact of each character on the others.’

Football might appear to be a surprising theme for the stage, but it certainly serves as a mirror to show us the richness of human character, which is what theatre does so very well.

‘Whichever way you look at it – the good, bad and ugly – it just gets under people’s skin, doesn’t it?’ concludes Bowler. ‘Which is exactly what makes it so interesting as a topic.’


Interview by Lucy Johnston