It's one of 2023's unlikelier stage stories. This autumn's hot new West End ticket is not a Lloyd-Webber, or a Disney, or yet another jukebox musical, but a comedy drama about the England football team.
Dear England is a rightly lauded play by James Graham (who wrote Quiz and Brexit: The Uncivil War, among others), originally staged at the National Theatre over the summer, and now triumphantly transferred to the Prince Edward; it's Harry Kane up there with Hamilton, the Three Lions vs The Lion King, match-ups we thought we'd never see.
Yes, Joseph Fiennes is remarkable as Gareth Southgate, while Dervla Kirwan's Dr Pippa Grange offers much take-home wisdom about facing fears and changing cultures - but the show's breakout star is Will Close, who plays Kane. He has quite the arc, from scene-stealing comedy to eye-moistening anguish, and also pops up as the young Gareth, just for added gut-punch.
When not portraying great British footballers Close is also writing his own stuff, including his ongoing live vehicle Great British Mysteries, which snuck in for a Soho Theatre run while everyone was distracted by this year's Edinburgh Fringe. The Close season? Something like that.
But how exactly did he end up becoming Kane, on such a high profile stage? Let's kick off at the beginning.
It's a fabulous play, if not the most obvious subject matter - what were your first thoughts when you heard about it?
I was immediately excited about the prospect of a play which is set in the football world. Plays about the 'beautiful game', or even sport more broadly, are actually pretty rare so I knew that if it was done well it might have the potential to reach a really large audience.
If you then throw in a creative team of [director] Rupert Goold, [writer] James Graham, [designer] Es Devlin, the National etc, it felt like it could be onto a winner. I'm also one of those people who religiously checks the BBC football website every morning when I wake up, so it was pretty tantalising to think about merging that hobby with my work.
How does the audition process work for a role like this - did you have to almost nail down your character before getting the part?
The audition process was initially more like a screen job; I did a self-tape a year ago for an initial workshop/reading of the play in an embryonic form and it went from there. At that point there wasn't a script to work with in the self-tape so I just had to improvise a post-match interview to camera in character as Kane.
The impersonation side of things wasn't something I'd ever done previously with Kane, I just poured a few days into watching clips of him for that self tape and it all sort of clicked. I suppose I had a pretty good sense of him as a character from being a big football fan but you obviously go a bit deeper when you invest that much time into watching him chat..!
I only realised that it might be landing well once we did the workshop and people seemed to like it/recognise him from the work.
Your character's arc mirrors the play's progression. Was there a conscious decision for Kane to start comedic, then have a very different second half?
I think Kane is a really beautifully written character in the world of the play so I'm working with a massive advantage on that side of things.
When the audience first meet him he leans slightly more into the 'shorthand' perception people might have of him from the TV but each time you meet him he gets subtly more textured and nuanced, and I hope by the end the audience really find themselves emotionally investing in his journey in a way they didn't expect to.
To play a character who has the potential to make you laugh and cry is a gift.
Did you have any qualms about making Harry so funny - any feedback from the Kane camp? What do you think he'd make of it?
I don't have qualms about it per se, because I think if you watch the play as a whole you will hopefully soak up all the fun of the script/character, but then also feel really proud of him as a kind, compassionate and regular guy who just happens to have this incredible sporting ability and be our national captain.
I haven't had any feedback from Kane's camp directly but I have met a few people who know Harry and have been along to see the play and they have all had nice things to say - which is a relief! I have no idea what Harry would think himself, I would be terrified if he was ever in the audience... but to shake his hand and thank him for everything would be a privilege.
Football/theatre crossovers are rare - has it felt like a unique theatrical experience?
Very much so. The feeling of camaraderie in the cast, the different demographic of audiences and the general 'buzz' around the show right from the first preview back at the National to now being in the West End has been incredible. It's felt like the show which everyone is seeing/has seen, which is a really exciting thing to be part of.
How do you look at the real Kane now - have you been watching his progress while playing him, or actively avoiding it?
I watch him even more closely now! He is just so incredibly brilliant - and potentially only just reaching his peak. He works hard for his team, he creates, he finishes, he leads, he rarely gets injured and is just so consistent at the highest level.
I hope he wins buckets of trophies at Bayern and then gets to lift one with England; he would be such a fitting man to have in our national history books alongside the likes of Moore and Charlton.
I imagine Dear England has taken over your life, for a bit - any more of your own comedy stuff in the works?
It has been nearly a year now of Dear England and it is rather all encompassing, but I have had gaps to keep other things brewing. A jet-black comedy play I wrote with Joe von Malachowski called Mediocre White Male is coming out on BBC Radio 4 later this year and I've also written a new play under the Great British Mysteries banner called Bad Altitude.
We tried out some previews of that at Soho Theatre in between the National and West End runs of Dear England, so hopefully we will have more news on where that goes next very soon. It's about a couple of mountain climbers in the 1980s who pledge to find and climb a mountain bigger than Everest. Obviously.
Dear England is at London's Prince Edward Theatre until January 13. Info & tickets