“What’s the difference between a bribe and an incentive?”
With the fallout of FIFA’s decisions of where to have the 2018 and 2022 World Cups still percolating around footballing bureaucrats even now, one could probably find more than enough material for a verbatim play full of high drama – alleged bribery and corruption, the tragedy of migrant working conditions, war-mongering presidents, seismic calendar shifts from summer to winter. William Gaminara’s The Three Lions wisely sidesteps that potential controversy though, by imagining a behind-the-scenes farce involving the trio spearheading the English bid to host the 2018 competition – three blokes by the name of David Cameron, David Beckham and Prince William.
In representing three such well-known figures, Dugald Bruce-Lockhart, Séan Browne and Tom Davey have to tread a fine line between impersonation and inhabiting their characters more fully and Gaminara’s script doesn’t always allow for this. Davey’s lanky Prince William becomes an improbable japester as he desperately tries to shake off his inbred stiffness and grammatical pedantry and be one of the lads. And Bruce-Lockhart gets the PM’s blustering and patronising tone just right, matching it with the overcompensatory physical language that belies innate insecurity. But they both get overshadowed by a work of comic genius in Browne’s footballer.
The constant look of bemusement as his brain tries to catch up with the events that go on around him is just brilliant, one can see just how slowly but steadily his thought processes work and Browne nails the timing on every occasion. It is (mostly) affectionately done too, his simple logic not always easily dismissed, and it is a performance that lifts the whole show. Concerned with the backroom shenanigans that accompanies securing the votes of the FIFA committee members, Gaminara imagines a series of increasingly farcical goings-on in a Zurich hotel room in 2010 which require no footballing knowledge to enjoy and fitfully prove most entertaining.
There’s not a huge deal of inspiration in the more obvious comic subjects – running jokes about the forthcoming Royal Wedding work well, the Nick Clegg and Posh Spice ones less so (although Becks’ choice of ringtone is INSPIRED!) – but what works better are the darker, subtler undercurrents. Jabs at the campaign’s self-aggrandising imperialism hit harder coming from the mouths of former colonial subjects, and the final point about how far corruption reaches remains as pertinent as it ever did. Colin Falconer’s design neatly suggests the gradations in hotel rooms even at VIP level and Philip Wilson’s production keeps the ball moving with a nice fluidity even if it never quite hits the back of the net. That said, with Séan Browne’s performance in mind, there’s no mistaking the man of the match.