Theatregoers walking into the Cambridge Theatre are greeted by the site of a black stage surrounded by a bombed out proscenium. Lloyd Webber’s 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 composer’s 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 can’t 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 show’s 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 O’Donnell. Mary and John are both Catholics but she is far more politicised than he. Christine and Del’s 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 evening’s better songs, “Don’t 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 Elton’s 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 play’s final scenes – that John is as much a victim of himself and his own community – is also fatally undermined.
Lloyd Webber’s 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 Levine’s 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 Tankard’s 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 Game’s 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 piece’s 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.