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A CurtainUp London Review
The Beautiful Game
by Lizzie Loveridge
Socialist Ben Elton is an unlikely collaborator with Conservative peer and owner of many of London's West End theatres, Andrew Lloyd Webber, composer, but here they are as lyricist and composer, respectively. Comedian Elton is little known outside England and, although he has written some witty plays, notably Popcorn which ran in the West End for some time, he is better known as the scriptwriter for television series like Blackadder. So we come to The Beautiful Game, another unlikely combination of themes for a musical: football (soccer) and the "Troubles" of Northern Ireland.
This is the first of Lloyd Webber's musicals to be created from an original story, also unusual for its topicality. Set in the years immediately after 1969, it follows the story of members of an amateur Catholic football team, managed by the local priest, on their way to winning the cup. There are violent sectarian clashes between the Loyalist (to the British Government) Protestants and the Catholics, and a love story à la Romeo and Juliet/West Side Story across the sectarian divide. Another love story between two Catholics, John Kelly, a star player, and his girl friend, later wife, Mary McCarthy, forms the main story line. John (David Shannon) is interned in a camp after helping a member of the Provisional IRA, and loses his opportunity to join an English professional football team. He is politicised as a "freedom fighter" but his marriage is ruined.
Clever casting has ensured that the boys look like ordinary boys and not the magnificent physical specimens you'll find in say, Fosse. This ordinariness pervades The Beautiful Game. It is a complete break with Lloyd Webber's lavish and sumptuously staged musicals. The language is the monosyllabic (and worse) language of the streets of Belfast; Elton's lyrics are however disappointingly lacking in wit, relying on sexual imagery for laughs. I started to compose in my head a word list of slang which I felt might not be understood by some of the Americans in the audience, words like wanker and git and goolies. Elton has been fairly even handed in not taking sides in the sectarian divide; he shows Protestants as rioters and murderers and Catholics as kneecappers and betrayers of their friends.
I did enjoy the very physical choreography from Australian Meryl Tankard as the footballers, clad in green jerseys, jump, kick and jerk back their elbows as if in celebration of goal scoring. The dance for the match between red jerseyed Protestants and green jerseyed Catholics is outstanding, full of the fervour of this passionately played and followed sport and acting as a metaphor for battle. I have heard it said that soccer started when soldiers would kick around a severed head after a battle. Here too Lloyd Webber has written some dramatic music for these dances and for the scenes of rioting. He sometimes brings in strains of Irish folk music or a solo pipe but most of the music is slow rock in style.
In places there are several pretty love songs which will not disappoint those who are fans of Lloyd Webber's other musicals. I did like the song about Ireland, "God's Own Country" which is sung by Mary (Josie Walker) and an unnamed Protestant girl (Dianne Pilkington) where both feel that their home is Northern Ireland. If we had not made the lyrical connection, slides of beautiful countryside appear at the rear of the stage to underline the point. Hannah Waddingham, fresh from the early closure of Lautrec, received the loudest ovation of the evening as Christine, for her love song "Our Kind of Love" which is to be released as a single record.
The proscenium arch at the Cambridge looks as if it has been in a bomb blast causing some of the audience to wonder at the state of dilapidation of London's theatres. The stage is left bare with black brick, the only concession to dramatic set design, a wall that collapses in a bomb blast. There are some pretty effects at the end when the team poses as if caught on photograph.
The question is whether something as frivolous as a musical can do justice to a serious political situation. After she has seen her friend kneecapped, Mary sings about the Irish, "We love to kill/ We always will. " I think Elton's lyrics are too glib and Lloyd Webber's formulaic music questionable but no doubt The Beautiful Game will attract audiences less cynical than I.