The Beautiful Game is many musicals away from previous Andrew Lloyd Webber shows and although the score is not always the easiest to listen to, the show has a strong book which is funny, observant, violent and thought provoking .

The show starts in 1969 and covers three years in the life of members of the local catholic football team. We meet these young people at 17 and come to learn how three years later 2 are dead, 1 crippled and 2 have fled the country. This is not a light fluffy musical leaving you ready to walk out singing the songs or the sets but leaves you with plenty of things to think about.

The score is not one of Lloyd Webbers best and although several of the love songs / ballads work very well and are memorable, the standout being ‘God’s Own Country’, the score seems to show its weakness during the more up beat songs such as ‘The Beautiful Game;, The Craic and ‘I would rather die on my feet than live on my knees’. These songs seems too discordant and poorly structured.

Ben Elton’s book is very strong, creating a plausible story which is funny and hard hitting at the same time. The characters and their stories are well constructed and concluded, thankfully he did not finish with a happy ending but a more realistic one. The lyrics albeit basic at times fit in well with the style of speak of the characters, they wouldn’t have spoken in clever rhymes, the ballads have some lovely lyrics which express the heart speaking as opposed to the head. The head thinks quick and simple and heart is more expressive

The Beautiful Game has an extremely strong cast led by David Shannon and Josie Walker as John and Mary. Their story is the central one for the show, childhood sweethearts who marry but whose lives are changed irrevocably due to a favour for a ‘friend’. Both created strong characters, they worked well together creating a plausible relationship and both had strong voices. Josie must be highlighted though for her voice as it was extremely powerful particularly during ‘s this what we are fighting for’ and the ‘finale’. She is excellent as Mary who moves from an innocent schoolgirl on civil rights parades to the woman having to accept the sacrifice she has to make and understanding that the man she loves will never be the same again. David Shannon is also excellent as John who again moves from the teenager obsessed with football and girls to the man changed forever when he comes out of prison

There is strong support from Michael Schafer as ‘the friend’ Thomas, Kelly O’Leary as Christine and Ben Goddard as Del. Thomas is someone whose catholic beliefs were deeply entrenched and he fights for those beliefs regardless of who he hurt or betrayed for the cause. He certainly creates a character which we could hate but one you can still understand. He destroys John’s life and so from that perspective he deserves to be punished but not to lose his life by John’s hand. In a way John has turned into someone like Thomas so in killing him he has finally stepped over the line in had previously run away from. Kelly is Christine the catholic best friend of Mary and Ben is Del the only Protestant (or world-wide atheist as he calls himself) on the football team. Although Thomas soon makes it clear that he is not welcome to stay any longer and for his safety he had better stay away. Kelly had one of the big numbers in the show ‘Our Kind of Love’ and she delivered it very well although I would prefer it if the character wasn’t seen to address the audience as much. There was also strong support from Dianne Pilkington and Christopher Fry as Bernadette and the unfortunate Ginger, their relationship is just one more victim of the troubles and from Jamie Golding as the very likeable rogue Daniel who has the misfortune to know Thomas and be crippled by his hand.

The set design is extremely minimalist but the show doesn’t ask for more. The bleak look of the design reflects the lives some of these young people lead. For me the most poignant section of the staging was the final tableau’s portrayed as Mary looked at the photograph of the 1969 team and remembering everyone as they were. The pictures ‘created’ perfectly captured the moment of glory for the characters in that winning game. The choreography was very effective and the football match being the highlight. I am not usually one for long movement numbers but this was just the right length as I believe it moved the story along showing more of the main characters personalities.

Overall the show surpassed my expectations, an extremely strong cast carried through this emotional tale of how peoples lives can get caught up in events of which are much bigger than they are. Although the score is not always easy to listen to, the book is both hard hitting and though provoking. Well worth another visit.

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