Andrew Lloyd Webber is often criticised for playing safe and being repetitive with his music and subjects. However, whether you are a fan or not of Lloyd Webber, there is no doubt that he has bought diversity into the West End for many years. I mean, look at the subjects his musicals have covered in shows like "Cats", "Starlight Express", "Jesus Christ Superstar", "Evita", "Sunset Boulevard", and "Whistle Down the Wind", all are very different musicals, and although many have that Lloyd Webber sound, the music is still diverse in 'my opinion'. He has now taken a brave subject and written music for a script by comedian Ben Elton, author of plays such as "Popcorn" and "Silly Cow". It is a partnership that surprised many in the industry, but one that certainly works.
The story is set in Belfast in 1969 and concerns a group of teenagers who are members of a football team of enormous promise. However, because of bigotry and intolerance, their potential is not to be realised. The story centres on John and Mary who fall in love, but find themselves caught in the middle of a 'war' that neither of them want.
'The Beautiful Game', is not a big spectacular musical with big sets that we are accustomed too from Lloyd Webber. Instead it is a touching and sad musical that handles a sensitive subject with neutrality, and uses minimal sets, which help to direct the audience's attention to the story and not the spectacle! The music is not Lloyd Webber's best, and there are not many memorable songs. 'Our Kind of Love', is the best of them. Nevertheless, it is a competent score that compliments the story, instead of dominating it. The story and lyrics by Ben Elton are shallow and crude in places, but he does succeed in getting across a difficult subject with balance and clarity coupled with comedy and empathy.
The experienced David Shannon, puts in a convincing performance playing the dull 'John', a catholic trying to keep out of the politics, but finding himself drawn in to the dispute. Josie Walker is impressive playing 'Mary', John's girlfriend, who cares for civil rights. And she certainly has a great voice, which is particularly evident when singing 'Our Kind of Love' at the end of the show. The 'young' ensemble perform very well with lots of energy and passion, with many of them making their West End debuts.
The show has received 'reasonable ' reviews from the popular press. None of the press have been shouting from the roof-tops on how good it is, but then none have rubbished it either….. BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "Elton doesn't always seem aware of the line between the simple and the clunky. But Webber not only extends his musical range but comes up with two or three lovely numbers, each packed with his trademark yearning." He goes on to say, "There are no truly exciting performances, but also no weak ones." NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "A dramatic, pioneering musical that dares to make a song and dance of the troubles of Northern Ireland." He goes on to say, "Robert Carsen's well-drilled and paced production cannot disguise the fact that Elton's book allows dull romancing to overwhelm a brave, sharp shot at a controversial, politically motivated musical." SHERIDAN MORLEY for TELETEXT, says, "Lloyd Webber's songs are intricately slotted into the storyline and many of them have a lilting, yearning charm." Morley ends his review with, "What this show suggests is that you no longer have to go to a musical having checked your brains into the cloakroom." PAUL TAYLER for THE INDEPENDENT says, "The Beautiful Game has its moments, with full-throated, plangent anthems; the impossibly catchy melody of its message-song, "Our Kind of Love"; and the hard-edged, exuberant synthesis, in the kicking twirls and leaps of Meryl Tankard's choreography, of the movements of football and modern ballet." He goes on to say, "The trouble with the show is not the Celtic-tinged music, which is never less than decent, nor the lyrics which, though uninspired, aren't actively blush-making. No, the culprit here is the book." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Sadly, hopes that The Beautiful Game might prove a Northern Irish West Side Story are hardly realised. Indeed, at worst the piece comes over like Grease-meets-Riverdance with the odd bit of earnest Eltonesque moralising thrown in." However, Spencer goes on to say, "The music includes some of Lloyd Webber's most haunting and memorable ballads." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "Even if the musical falls at the last hurdle, it as at least trying something boldly different, and Lloyd Webber's score, with its echoes of Irish folk and ballad music, is his best since Aspects of Love." JOHN PETER for THE SUNDAY TIMES says Andrew Lloyd Webber "romps home with his best work since Cats and his finest piece of musical theatre ever".
"The Beautiful Game", is not a great musical and it certainly is not a 'good feel' musical, but it is an intelligent, touching and thought provoking show that will have you leaving the theatre with much to talk about and reflect on !!