Review: The Beautiful Game, Union Theatre

“I’m an atheist and an internationalist – I don’t believe in God or country”

Andrew Lloyd Webber and Ben Elton’s The Beautiful Game managed a run of just under a year at the turn of the millennium. It was then rewritten and retitled The Boys in the Photograph for a 2009 North American premiere in Canada, and it is that version which now makes its London fringe debut at the Union Theatre, but under the original title of The Beautiful Game. Got it? The endless tinkering of musicals is nothing new – ‘Our Kind of Love’, the best known song in the original was filleted out and repurposed as the title song for Love Never Dies – but the clumsiness with which the ending has been redone here is ridiculously clunky.

Which is a shame, as there is much good work here in Lotte Wakeham’s production. David Shields’ simple design makes clever use of benches and Tim Jackson’s choreography finds a remarkably effective middle ground between soccer and soft shuffle in bringing the football sequences to vibrant life on the limited traverse stage. An appealingly fresh-faced cast, spearheaded by an excellent Niamh Perry, deliver performances of spirited energy and graceful enthusiasm. And musically, MD Benjamin Holder introduces an interesting range of textures to enhance the score and alleviate some of its repetitive longueurs.

The problems lie mainly with the material. Elton’s book follows a Belfast football team from 1969-72 as attentions turn from kicking balls to kicking heads in as the nationalist struggle explodes into life, fracturing communities down political and religious lines. It’s a show of two halves though with Elton failing to weave together his subjects or demonstrate much nuance in the exploration of them. The first half is football crazy, the second half terrorist mad, so that much of what happens before the interval just seems like the set-up for the key narrative which finally arrives late in the game and as a result feels overly hurried.

And there’s little subtlety in the message either – football good, terrorists bad ad infinitum. Things really are black and white in this world and the dialogue is continually cliché-ridden rather than delving into the psychology of what really radicalises people, what motivates someone to take such extreme action, how people reconcile such divided loyalties. Lloyd Webber’s score is also ill-equipped to dig that deep, shining best in the romantic liaisons and hilarious wedding night of Perry’s Mary Maguire, radiating moral integrity in the murky world of the Troubles and Ben Kerr’s John Kelly, a promising footballer sucked into the darkness.

Wakeham manages to find a successful throughline though, building the show in intensity towards the climax, but is ultimately hamstrung by a rewritten ending which utterly lacks the courage of its convictions in an act of shameful crowd-pleasing. Musical theatre doesn’t have to be happy all the time, especially in relating the troubles of such recent history but more importantly, the finale of The Beautiful Game commits a real foul with a final scene that feels tacked on unnecessarily and a coda that veers too close to sentimentality for its own good. Still, it remains a strong production and an excellent showcase for Niamh Perry.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval)
Photo: Darren Bell

Booking until 3rd May

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