Actor Josh Barrow talks about the similarities between acting on stage and stepping between the sticks, and how he wound up playing England’s number one.
Football is often described as the greatest show on earth, and goalkeepers the villains of the drama.
Josh Barrow has been around the theatre all his life, but the ‘world stage’ of the Premier League and international footballing competitions had, until recently, always been somewhat alien to him.
Yet it was the fusion of these two arenas that brought Barrow, 27, into the spotlight in an unlikely pairing; playing charismatic England number one Jordan Pickford in James Graham’s play Dear England.
Despite not being a football fan or goalkeeper himself, Barrow has expertly captured the unique psyche of the goalkeeper and the pressures they face in his characterisation of Pickford. Indeed, the careers of an actor and of a goalkeeper do share certain similarities.
“Acting work is so few and far between. Take for example a big TV show like Game of Thrones, Succession, or any show. You watch that program, you see an actor in that, and that's one actor doing that role. That is their role. There could have been up to 2,000 people who've gone for that role, but in the end it’s one”, Josh explains.
This is a storyline well read for those who have pursued a career as a goalkeeper.
“You have to do the brief, you have to bring a level of talent as well, but a lot of it is about luck”, Barrow continues.
Some might say his casting was a calling. “My acting agent received an email from the National [Theatre] basically saying ‘your client looks a lot like Jordan Pickford’, which I have actually heard said before. I remember my best mate was particularly happy when I got cast in the role because he would tease me throughout the Euros and throughout the World Cup saying ‘you look like Jordan Pickford!’.
“They asked me to do a self tape, which is like an audition where you film yourself at home. They sent me a clip of Jordan Pickford and an interview and asked me to ‘transcribe’ it. I then had a go at acting his voice and capturing his mouth shape, which informs the voice.”
There were several more rounds of auditions, read throughs, and movement workshops, though, before Barrow was officially offered the role.
“Everything has to align for you to get a role sometimes, to the point where it can be the mood of the casting director, or the producer or director on the day. I remember a personal story where I once got down to the last two for a film but I didn't get the role because the other guy who turned up on the day had darker circles under his eyes, which suited the character more.
“I don't know how many people go to football trials, but if there are twenty or thirty young lads or girls all trying to force a way into the first team, or get put on the bench for the first team, it can be a lottery. There is talent, but it’s about performance on the day as well.
“Sometimes you can be at the absolute top of your game but on the day you just perform badly and then the right person sees you and goes ‘well they're not there yet’. And then that negates however many years of training you’ve had”.
Described as a play about ‘England football manager Gareth Southgate, the pressures of elite sport, and the role of the national men's football team in the national psyche’, Barrow describes Jordan Pickford’s role in the production as very much set alongside the notion of the team. On stage, the goalkeeper is not ostracised.
“What the players represent is this team of young men who all come from their own clubs, at the start expressing this bravado mentality that’s associated with footballers, but by the end a team who support each other and are there for each other in moments of glory and in moments of loss”, says Barrow.
“You think about when Harry Kane missed the penalty in Qatar and then the footage of him being held by Jude Bellingham. He kind of gets him by the shoulders and says ‘you’re alright mate, you’re alright’. And that’s what the play tries to portray, in the mentality that Southgate has brought to England. You can hold people; you stand by them so they don’t feel alone.
“Of course, as the goalkeeper, Pickford understands that. He helps represent a part of a mentality change in a team.”
What’s acutely obvious is how well Barrow has understood Pickford’s character. Over the seasons, England’s number one has come to be associated with a particularly expressive demeanour on the pitch. As time has gone on, analysts have come to note a greater maturity in his game. Again, Barrow spots - and portrays - the detail.
“In playing Pickford, what was important for me was tracking the progression of somebody who does initially have this reputation of being quite hyperactive, almost quite volatile on the pitch in situations.
“When we first meet Pickford, he almost shakes with excitement and anticipation. One thing that I really noticed in analysing his behaviour, especially when he approaches the goal for a penalty, is that he walks up as if he’s going into a fight that he knows he's going to win.
“There's a swagger there; almost an assurance in his mind that, regardless of whether the ball goes past him and he doesn't save it, there's always that idea that ‘I'm gonna strike you out. I'm not gonna stop looking at you. I'm gonna maintain eye contact and if I can do anything right now I'm gonna do my very best to put you off and intimidate you’”, recalls Barrow.
The Dear England star continues, jokingly: “He wouldn't be somebody that you’d want to cross in a bar or something like that. You think ‘I might give them a bit of a wide berth’. And that is this persona that I think Pickford brings to the pitch.
“A lot of the characterisation is finding the nuances that inform this energy, and crucially, understanding that this energy is actually very focused”.
Pickford’s character development goes hand in hand with the play’s narrative arc. Beginning just before the World Cup in 2018, and ending with England’s World Cup exit last Christmas in Qatar, it follows the growth of the national squad under Southgate and the associated psychological reformation he brought to the Three Lions squad. It’s a growth that Pickford has been a part of from the start.
But understanding this transformation and getting into the mind of one of England’s most charismatic stars is a dramatic task in itself. Barrow stressed the importance of costume in helping him step into Pickford’s shoes. The acts may play out on a wooden stage instead of a luscious green pitch, and Barrow’s gloves may not be a brand new pair of £100+ Pumas, but, for him, costume goes beyond a physical outfit.
“Right now, I’ve got my glasses on and my hair’s all over the place. But the minute I slick it back and get my number one jersey on, it helps me get into the role”, Barrow says.
Elbow pads may only be seen on the dusty, dry recreation ground pitches of Britain’s Sunday Leagues in the summer, but they’re another element of costume that help Barrow lock into a goalkeeping persona on stage.
“I like to be able to distance myself from Josh the actor and put as much distance between Josh the actor and the character”, Barrow explains, talking about how his characterisation also helps him deal with the pressure of performing in front of an audience of up to a few thousand.
“When I'm doing the show I'm Jordan Pickford, I'm not Josh the actor. I use little cues to keep myself in check. Something I’ve decided to do is, in the first scene when I appear as Pickford, I make this fidgeting movement with my hands. It’s a ‘can’t sit still’ thing. Later on in the last scene, I do it again but it's a little bit more relaxed. In my mind, that’s Pickford maturing as a player and becoming calmer. Nobody in the audience needs to notice, but for me that [hand movement] opens the book and that closes it on his character arc."
“I don't play football generally”, admits Barrow.
“But, I would always prefer to go in goal if I was going to play football because I'm quite long, I’m the same height as Pickford. I've got quite long gangly arms, and I think I'm actually a lot better in goal than I am playing out on the field, so I wouldn't call myself a goalkeeper, but I would much prefer to go in goal than play out on the field.”
“We would love for the squad to come and see the show”, he concludes.
“I haven't actually spoken to him [Pickford]. I would love for him to come and see the show. We'd love for all of them to come and see the show. But we also appreciate that it's a limited run. They might not be interested. I think if it was me and I knew that somebody was playing me in a play or in a film, I'd be straight there!”.
In the strangest of ways, it seems as if Josh Barrow has caught the goalkeeping bug. The position does have a dramatic lure, after all.
Funny, that. Perhaps, goalkeeping has found him.
Dear England is running at the National Theatre until 11 August. It will transfer to the Prince Edward Theatre, in London’s West End, from 9 October 2023.