Sports and musicals – two opposing pursuits that don’t really fit together. Whilst Rocky is currently doing the rounds on Broadway, few sports-based musicals have really stood the test of time. As Troy in High School Musical can attest to, it’s often a choice between the two to “get your head in the game”.
For John, the protagonist in The Beautiful Game, the choice is between football and girls – at least initially. With music from Andrew Lloyd Webber and a book from Ben Elton (originally premiering in the West End in 2000), the plot centres on a football team in 1960s Northern Ireland to the backdrop of religious violence and terrorism. In such a context, football – the third religion that’s “better than sex and better than beer” - is quickly forgotten as the show takes a turn towards serious social drama.
The result is a musical with an identity crisis. The real battle here is not a West Side Story style rumble between the Catholics and the Protestants, but a war for stage time between a football comedy and an Irish nationalist drama. Sadly, one undermines the other. The first act establishes the two-dimensional characters and their predictable trajectories with a lightly comedic tone that’s reverent of the time and some one-liners that mostly fall flat. What else can you expect from Ben Elton? The second act jarringly switches on the drama button, finally injecting some jeopardy that was merely hinted at in the first act. Yet how are we meant to feel for these characters and their plight when their dialogue is so childish and based on Irish stereotypes (“we’re even better drinkers than footballers!”)?
Lloyd Webber’s score also has a split personality. As you’d expect there are plenty of tunes, be they folky, rock and roll or militaristic, but it also has its menacing moments (the opening flute melody especially). Too often, though, it relies on stereotypical romance – a cliché that’s hindered by Elton’s bland lyrics.
When the show does focus on football, the results are thrilling. In this production from director Lotte Wakeham, the audience is set in traverse like a stadium with cast members popping up to cheer from behind. The actual game, choreographed by Tim Jackson, is suitably sweaty, testosterone-fuelled and thrilling to watch.
Thankfully, Wakeham has directed a talented cast to add some depth to the music and the characters. As a whole the ensemble are hardworking and offer some varied characterisation, with Daniella Bowen (Christine) and Stephen Barry (Del) shining vocally in their rock number. The real star, though, is Niamh Perry who brings powerful emotion and maturity to the role of Mary – something Lloyd Webber and Elton were unable to do overall. Still, The Beautiful Game is an enjoyable (if long) musical that remains “bloody good craic”.
Watch: The Beautiful Game runs at the Union Theatre until May 3rd.