The Beautiful Game continues at the Union Theatre, London until 3 May.
On its original West End run in 2000, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Ben Elton’s musical The Beautiful Game attracted much scorn for attempting to address Northern Ireland’s Troubles of the late 1960s and early 1970s through the use of musical theatre. And while there is plenty to be derided in the play’s occasional ham-fistedness, a decade’s distance – and some substantial reworking – results in a piece that just about manages to overcome its innate sense of melodrama.
Despite carrying the name of the original show, this production is the revised version which debuted in Canada under the name The Boys in the Photograph. Focusing on five boys on a Catholic football team, their priest manager and their girlfriends, Elton’s story almost begs for reviewers to reach for footballing metaphors. It’s very much a game of two halves – some great, and often black, comedy moments vying with bleak, murderous story threads. There are plenty of dummy plays, too – the usual antagonism-turns-to-love subplot that can fuel whole musicals is dispensed with in a single song; a suggestion of a cross-culture Romeo and Juliet story between a Catholic girl and the football team’s one Protestant player turns out to happen mostly offstage. And there are plenty of occasions where Elton’s banal lyrics, combined with the score of Lloyd Webber’s deceptively simple uptempo numbers, have all the complexity and charm of a football chant.
On the other hand, where The Beautiful Game works is in those moments where it tries less hard to be a political statement, and more to expose the conflicting emotions felt by a group of young people struggling to grow up in an inner city riven with violence and prejudice. And it is those moments where the intimacy of a fringe space, the performance of the young cast and some spirited direction and choreography works most effectively.
Niamh Perry, whose association with Lloyd Webber started with BBC1 talent show I’d Do Anything and continued with Love Never Dies, carries the brunt of both the singing and emotion within the show, and does so superbly. Her Mary is forthright, outwardly self-confident, but carries the weight of the world – or at least, Republican Belfast – on her shoulders. Her interplay with boyfriend, and later husband, John (an engaging, spirited Ben Kerr) carries the show through some of its more ridiculous moments, and only enhances its better ones. Of their friends, Daniella Bowen’s flighty, flirty Christine and Alan McHale’s sensitive Ginger stand out, along with Carl McCrystal’s priest – an embodiment of the whole work, unpredictably and not unenjoyably veering from stereotype to light relief to social conscience.
The show is most successful when capturing the youthful enthusiasm of the footballers, intent on emulating Belfast footballer George Best both on the pitch and in the bar. As the crucial five-a-side final plays out, its quick transition into an impressionistic ballet demonstrates some fine choreography work from Tim Jackson. But it is when addressing the pull of the violent world of the Provisional IRA that such good work risks being left behind. In attempting to convey the world of violent Provos as a small band of balaclava-clad scene shifters, or Unionist marches as a couple of bowler-hatted, sash-clad Orangemen, the limitations of Fringe theatre are most keenly felt.
Ultimately, though, director Lotte Wakeham uses the Union’s enforced intimacy – arranged here in a traverse setting which is the best use of the space in a long time – to ensure that while this work may not hit the back of the net, its aim is true.
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Niamh Perry playing The Beautiful Game – Interview