It’s not every 23 year-old musical theatre actress who can plausibly first-name drop Lord Lloyd Webber. Niamh Perry is one.
“It’s taken the best bits of both productions… it’s what it always should have been in Andrew’s eyes.”
The musical in question is one of the Lord’s lesser known works, The Beautiful Game. The show, co-written with Ben Elton, premiered in the West End in 2000 and was later reworked for a Canadian production entitled The Boys in the Photograph. It’s now being revived (with the original title) at the Union Theatre on the London Fringe in a production directed by Lotte Wakeham (associate director on Matilda the Musical).
For Perry the Lloyd Webber connection goes back even further. She was originally picked by him to be a finalist in the TV talent show I’d Do Anything and subsequently cast as Fleck in The Phantom of the Opera sequel Love Never Dies. She definitely has a fan.
“I feel very lucky and privileged that I get to work with him again. Andrew’s always had quite a passion for Celtic music and I think my voice is a bit more Celtic than it is musical theatre.”
And that Celtic connection made her a natural choice for The Beautiful Game. The story centres around the Catholic/Protestant divide in a young Northern Irish football team in the 1970s.
John and Del are just two regular teenagers who dream of nothing more than girls and football. And under the watchful eye of their local soccer team coach Father O’Donnell, they both show enough promise to pursue careers as professional footballers. But as political tensions begin to engulf their community, they have more than the fortunes of their team to worry about.
For Perry, coming from Bangor in County Down, it’s a tale that’s close to home.
“My Dad grew up in a working class Catholic family in the middle of the troubles. So a lot of the stories I’ve grown up with are being played out in the show.”
She plays Mary, a naive Catholic girl whose life is turned upside down by the conflict but eventually emerges as a strong campaigner for peace. For Perry, the story represents the hopes of her own generation.
“There’s a lyric in ‘God’s Own Country’ that ‘each new generation will rebuild the nation’ and that’s something that I’ve always tried to follow as a young person from Northern Ireland. I hate that people don’t love Belfast for the fact that it’s an amazing city. After all these years people still talk about the troubles.”
On a more practical note, it’s also the first time that Perry has been able to use her own Northern Irish accent as a performer.
“It’s actually quite a weird feeling singing in your own accent. It feels like you’re not really singing… sometimes it feels like you’re not even acting. It’s actually really fashionable at the moment. There are a lot of Northern Irish singer-songwriters singing in a Northern Irish accent for the first time. It’s made me want to use my accent and sing in my accent more.”
One of the most striking ballads in the Irish-tinted score is ‘If This is What We’re Fighting For’ which, Perry explains, “sums up Mary’s whole journey in one song”. The beautifully lilting tune is set against a bitter lyric: “We just love to kill/And we always will/If this is what we’re fighting for, I don’t want to win.” It’s a powerful moment but one that Perry is keen not to overplay.
“I’m quite opposed to having big stagey, belt-y moments when they’re not totally necessary. I think I’m constantly just trying to tell the story. It’s not really about the big note at the end for me; it might be really small. I’m trying to steer away from making obvious choices.”
The Beautiful Game is certainly not an obvious choice for a musical. Dealing as it does with the recent past, the show’s reception will inevitably be coloured by current political attitudes. But while there are still plenty of sensitivities around the subject, not least in Northern Ireland itself, Perry is optimistic.
“It’s quite difficult to perform stuff like that at home. Back in 2000, when the show was in the West End, perhaps it was too close to the wire then. But we’ve come on, from strength to strength, and the new generations aren’t standing for the sectarian choices that some people make. Maybe it is time to bring it home. Maybe this is the perfect time.”
The Beautiful Game continues at the Union Theatre, London until 3 May (press night is 8 April).
* Before The Beautiful Game, Perry most recently played Johanna in Sweeney Todd at West Yorkshire Playhouse and Manchester Royal Exchange. Other recent credits include A Song Cycle For Soho at Soho Theatre, the title role in The Little Prince at the Lyric Theatre Belfast, Kim in the Boy George musical Taboo at Brixton Clubhouse and Sophie in Mamma Mia!
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