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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Beautiful Game
Union Theatre        Spring 2014

It is a rare but special delight when a revival of a show you didn't like the first time around changes your mind. 

As my original review indicates, I didn't think much of this Andrew Lloyd Webber - Ben Elton musical in 2000, finding it overblown, formulaic and unmelodic. But this intimate-scale production by Lotte Wakeham reveals the small but engaging story inside the musical and even finds that some of the songs are first-rank ALW. 

Part of the change is in the text, which seems to have been modified and focussed, much of it in the move from a large bare stage to the tiny and intimate Union Theatre, and a lot more from the excellent performances director Wakeham draws from her young cast. 

Set in 1959 Belfast, The Beautiful Game follows the teenagers of a local Catholic football team as they grow up and get caught up in the city's troubles. The one lad with real football talent finds love and is on his way to a professional career when a favour for a republican friend puts him in prison, where he is radicalised. 

Where the West End production was unable to make this seem much more than a tired imitation of West Side Story, Wakeham and her performers not only bring us closer to the doomed romance but also clarify and involve us in the context, making the musical an elegy for a whole lost generation of innocents. 

There is still a lot of humour, of course, in the boys' roughhousing and their awkwardness with girls, and this revival is particularly strong in one area I singled out as weak in the original, Tim Jackson's choreography and musical staging moving the cast around the small stage inventively, and cleverly capturing the energy and excitement of a football game in dance. 

And some of the songs, on delayed second hearing, are actually good. The big Andrew Lloyd Webber melody here is the rueful 'God's Own Country', but 'All The Love I Have' and the song of two virgins on their wedding night, 'The First Time', are also lovely ballads. 

The title song is catchy, 'Cleaning The Kit' clever and 'The Boys In The Photograph' a simple melody that develops dark overtones by the end. 

Ben Kerr and Niamh Perry are attractive as the central couple, he taking the boy believably from shallow teen to mature man and political innocent to tragically committed, she ably and movingly embodying the truism that it is the women who bear the burden of grieving. 

The Union Theatre has in recent years made a cottage industry out of reviving neglected musicals of the past. They haven't all proved worth rediscovering, but a success like this makes the whole process worthwhile.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  The Beautiful Game - Union Theatre 2014

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