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 The Theatreguide.London Review


The Beautiful Game
Cambridge Theatre 2000-01

Through much of the new Ben Elton - Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, the stage is dark or shadowy. That's appropriate, since the story is a gloomy one. Unfortunately, the show itself, as a show, is drab and colourless, with very little theatrical vitality.

Much has been made of the Odd Couple pairing of leftist writer-comedian Elton and essence-of-the-establishment Lord Lloyd Webber, but there is no reason why they shouldn't have been able to work together successfully. Rodgers and Hart didn't have much in common beyond their talent, and the creators of The Beautiful Game are both skilled professionals. They just haven't given their creation any life.

There are things to respect about the show. Elton's book is a little heavier than the average musical, but no more so than, say, West Side Story (to which it bears some similarity). In 1969 Belfast a group of late-teen Catholic boys live for their parish football (i.e., soccer) team. Gradually they discover girls, which is nice, and politics, which isn't.

The one Protestant is hounded off the team, while one of the Catholics joins the IRA. A boy and girl trying to stay out of politics are sucked into it. There are two killings, one violent maiming, one innocent imprisoned, one apolitical figure tragically radicalized and dehumanized and, in the Irish tradition, only the women left to mourn and cry for sanity.

Elton's lyrics aren't bad, for a first-timer. He gets most of the rhymes right, and only occasionally has to warp syntax or pronunciation to make them fit. There's a clever song by a boy stuck with the team's dirty work that finds every possible rhyme for "cleaning the kit" without getting precious or silly; and there's a lovely duet for two Catholic virgins on their wedding night.

But virtually all the lyrics are derivative, with a second-hand quality. Without using the same language, he has a song that plays exactly the same role as Hammerstein's People Will Say We're In Love, and another that duplicates the sentiments of You've Got To Be Taught. Several songs have analogues in West Side Story - a version of I Have a Love and a variant on A Place For Us are most noticeable. You can't help footnoting each song as it comes along, and comparing it to its superior antecedent.

The real failing in The Beautiful Game, though, is in Andrew Lloyd Webber's music, which is ineffective and ephemeral - you forget each melody even while you're listening to it.

Now, I am not an ALW-basher. I consider Phantom one of the greatest musicals of all time, I love Joseph, and I recognize that every show has had one or two first-rate theatre songs. That was always something you could count on with ALW - he knew how to write effective theatre songs.

But this is without question his weakest score ever, and he is noticeably reduced to stealing from himself, with clear echoes of melodies from Phantom and Whistle Down the Wind, while the structure and orchestration of the climax is straight from the finale of Willy Russell's Blood Brothers.

David Shannon and Josie Walker make an attractive central couple, but the roles are written (and directed, by Robert Carsen) to be actor-proof, and I am sure their understudies will be just as good. Michael Levine's set design is attractively minimalist and blessedly low-tech, but Meryl Tankard's choreography, mainly for two attempts to capture football games in dance, is ineffective.

Of course nothing I or anyone else says will keep this show from running for years. But I doubt that audiences will find it as satisfying an experience as they have come to expect from Lloyd Webber.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - The Beautiful Game - Cambridge 2000