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Theatregoers walking into the Cambridge Theatre are greeted by the site of a black stage
surrounded by a bombed out proscenium. Lloyd
Webbers latest is an attempt to get away from the theatrical spectaculars of Phantom, Starlight
and Sunset Boulevard in which lush settings
and empty emotionalism seemed almost more important than score or book. What follows only partly lives up to this opening
impression. The Beautiful Game clearly aims to say something
serious about real people in extreme situations. Unfortunately,
the composers desire to tell a story in simple, primary colours leaves him somewhat
at sea when tackling an issue as complex as the Troubles.
Fatally, Lloyd Webber cant decide whether he is writing about an
ill-starred love affair or the history of a divided Ireland. In failing to direct the audiences attention
in one direction or the other he leaves them caught between the two and unable to work out
what they feel about either. It is a mistake
that Leonard Bernstein avoided in this shows obvious antecedent, West Side Story, by making the problems of ethnic
rivalry the background to the story of Tony and
Maria rather than the subject of the show. He
managed to comment on the issue while leaving the audience to experience the piece on a
variety of levels.
The Beautiful Game is concerned with two couples, both involved with an amateur football team run by the standard issue tough-but-decent Father ODonnell. Mary and John are both Catholics but she is far more politicised than he. Christine and Dels relationship is complicated by the fact that he was born a Protestant - although constantly protesting that, as an atheist, he doesn't take sides. It is with this second couple that the musical really fails to deliver. Their dramatic potential is completely undermined when the authors simply have them emigrate to America when the going becomes too tough, thus depriving us of the only characters trying to form a relationship across the divide. Instead they concentrate on Mary and John. One of the evenings better songs, Dont Like You, traces their relationship from initial disdain to cautious warmth. When John is betrayed and imprisoned, after reluctantly helping an IRA member, he becomes directly involved in the Republican cause much to the dismay of the increasingly sophisticated Mary who comes to see the escalating violence as a hopeless cause.
Ben Eltons plot is considerably more complicated than this summary suggests and includes some strong moments - in particular in the closing minutes of the first act when a member of the football team is the victim of an unprovoked attack by Protestant youths. Too often, however, it falls back on predictable cliches, failing to explore interesting insights like that of IRA hard-boy Thomas who suggests that the only reason each side continues with the fighting is to prevent the other from winning. The lyrics are, by and large, trite, although they rise to the occasion in some of the lighter numbers. The First Time neatly lays out the different concerns of Mary and John on their wedding night - she brimming with love and romance while he is overcome with concern about his sexual performance. Elton's failure to make the Protestants more than shadowy figures of villainy crucially biases the piece. The implication of the plays final scenes - that John is as much a victim of himself and his own community - is also fatally undermined.
Lloyd Webbers music fails to soar except in some of the chorus numbers and, unfortunately, he continues to believe that four or five melodies endlessly recycled with minimum variation constitutes a full score. Michael Levines design lives up to its first impression, eschewing complicated machinery in favour of simple, dark settings, leavened by glimpses of a greener Ireland beyond the Troubles. Meryl Tankards choreography is intermittently interesting but makes a football game look rather like a keep-fit class. The young cast are committed and energetic.
The Beautiful Games biggest problem may be that it is a small show in a big theatre. Given a more intimate setting it might be possible to engage more directly with the characters and ignore some of the pieces diluting generalisations. If Lloyd Webber really wants to leave the bombast of past shows behind he may have to sacrifice potential box office riches as well.
London, October, 2000 - Mark Jennett