Union Theatre, London
Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Book & lyrics by Ben Elton
The main focus of The Beautiful Game is Northern Ireland’s Troubles; more crucially though and through the generic tale of an amateur football team making it big, this musical actually speaks to us about the broader human values of loyalty, intimacy and trust.
In the first UK revival since the musical’s West End premier in 2000, it’s easy to see why the show hasn’t garnered more frequent outings. While there are a number of touching portraits as a generation of players and their female admirers take their final steps into adulthood, rhymes such as ‘life/wife’ seem sinfully obvious and lyrically, 'Clean the Kit' is a particularly irksome number. The cast however respond appropriately, through a tapestry of gently nuanced gestures. The occasional convincing stare, or off-beat ‘tut’ and a whole-hearted cheer, bring a refreshing truth to an otherwise often cheesy and sometimes rather over-earnest show.
Although some important moments are shielded behind pillars, Lotte Wakeham's production generally uses the Union's compact space with flair. Presented in a traverse staging, with both back rows reserved for jeering ensemble members, the audience are pitched into "opposing stands", adding a modest flavour of football rivalry to the evening.
At times ensemble members hold up washing lines, suggesting a thrifty domesticity at play and reminding us how much the central characters are a product of their society and throughout, David Shields’ designs work well. Ladies in authentic leather panel skirts and sleeveless jumpers, with the protagonist football team kitted out in patterned shirts that simply scream “peace and love”.
The production itself may be made of less intriguing material, but Niamh Perry and Ben Kerr bring a zeal to the relationship between Mary and John. Married, John drifts from playing field to incarceration as Mary drifts from the sidelines to motherhood. Backed by a strong ensemble, both actors give standout performances, furnishing the maturing relationship with their own language of physical intimacy.
The man of the match award for this production however goes to Tim Jackson. Taking a very literal approach to the sport, Jackson choreographs a scene that cements the excitement and passion of football and the energy and dedication of its players. Dramatic red lights are punctuated by stark drum beats as two teams tumble around the stage. At moments, it’s graceful - the sweetest goal is scored; seconds later, as the teams clash, there’s bloodthirsty passion in their movements. Truly an exercise in coordination and teamwork and a beautiful interpretation of the beautiful game.
Runs to 3rd May 2014
Guest reviewer: Amelia Forsbrook