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THE BEAUTIFUL GAME – Union Theatre, London.

Freddie Rogers, Alan McHale, Ben Kerr and Will Jeffs in The Beautiful Game. Photo Credit Darren Bell

Photo by Darren Bell

The creators of The Beautiful Game have no truck with subtext. If there’s a point to be made, they will make it, in firm dialogue, in overt lyrics, and then in dialogue again, just to be sure. That leaves us in no doubt whatsoever of this earnest, ambitious musical’s intentions, but there is little room left for the drama, artistic expression and emotional depth that might lift the show above a well-meaning, Wikipedia-referencing blog on the Troubles, which occasionally breaks into Riverdance.

That’s a shame, as the Union Theatre’s revival is certainly timely, with Michael D Higgins’ current visit, and the intimate venue’s crisp, stripped-back staging proves an effective framework for the work that divided critics on its 2000 West End debut. The combination of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s sweeping romantic vision and Ben Elton’s unflinching populism is certainly an intriguing proposition, and there are glimpses of the knockout the pair might have produced – a West Side Story for 1960s Belfast.

Unfortunately, the moment either spots a cliché, they run towards it beaming, arms outstretched; it’s perilously close to a ‘Make love, not war’ bumper sticker. This is not the place to come for nuanced political debate, nor narrative thrills. The plot is alarmingly predictable, and the moral hammered home through repetitive scenes and songs. Most overlap thematically, and few numbers tell us anything that hasn’t already been expressed, frequently and bluntly.

Lloyd Webber alternates between lush, lilting ballads and soft-rock anthems, creating a decent underpinning but no breakout hits. Most egregious, Elton’s book has flashes of rousing wit, but his lyrics are woeful, with their juvenile rhymes (‘great’/‘mate’) and painful literalism (‘cleaning kit’/‘sick of it’ intones a character who is – you guessed it – sick of cleaning kit). This gives the actors a daunting challenge: overcoming the sea of platitudes and exposition in order to invest their stock types with humanity.

Ben Kerr brings a sweet, if occasionally pitchy, voice and restless energy to John, puppy-dog star of the local football team. He fares better with John’s youthful dreams than later radicalisation, but that’s not surprising given the show’s odd pacing: meandering first half and rushed second. As his romantic interest, Niamh Perry (who rose to fame on Lloyd Webber TV talent search I’d Do Anything) struggles to make the admittedly strident Mary appealing and strains on her top notes, but comes alive during the dramatic later scenes, particularly in her raw, partly a cappella performance of “If This Is What We’re Fighting For”.

Among the supporting cast, Daniella Bowen and Stephen Barry as covert lovers have a soulful chemistry and lovely tone, sweetly comedic Alan McHale and Natalie Douglas provide the evening’s spontaneous, genuinely heartfelt moment, Carl McCrystal’s priest-turned-coach is a strong presence, and Freddie Rogers puts in a compelling, jittery performance as the IRA extremist, even if he doesn’t entirely land the denouement.

Lotte Wakeham directs a brisk production, although there are some sightline issues in the traverse staging, and David Shields’ intelligent design is nicely unobtrusive. Tim Jackson adds some neat choreographic touches, doing well to evoke the climactic football game without resorting to cliché and giving us a glimmer of real grit and passion in prison number “Dead Zone”. More specific, interior work like this and fewer sweeping statements (Violence is bad!) would work wonders.

In fact, one of the most engaging scenes involves no sermonising at all. Act 2 begins with Mary and John’s endearingly awkward wedding night, in which they are no longer personified political viewpoints or sombre parables, but two individuals facing something new and daunting. The respite doesn’t last long, but in that moment, they are people worth rooting for, and the blur of historic action has tangible, human consequences. A pity, then, that the show chickens out with its bland, sentimental climax, missing the chance to explore something truly meaningful.

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Reviewed 09/04/13/

By Marianka Swain

2nd April – 3rd May
Union Theatre, London, SE1.

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