Book and Lyrics: Ben Elton
Music: Andrew Lloyd Webber
Director: Hannah Chissick
Reviewer: Richard Maguire
The second show in The National Youth Musical Theatre’s takeover of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s new venue, The Other Palace, is none other than his 2000 musical The Beautiful Game, and these young actors do him proud. Their production is only on for four days, but it’s still worthy of the West End.
Lloyd Webber’s show, with a book and lyrics by Ben Elton, wasn’t well-received when it first appeared at the Cambridge Theatre in London. Critics suggested that Elton’s book was too simple, that Lloyd Webber’s music was too sentimental for a story about football and sectarian violence in Northern Ireland at the tail end of the 60s. Its run in the West End lasted less than a year.
While this new production doesn’t quite shake off these criticisms, the NYMT – whose alumni include Sheridan Smith and Idris Elba – comes with such energy and commitment that the show’s problems are quickly forgotten. It calls for a large cast, and so plenty of young actors ranging from the ages of 15 to 21 are allowed to shine in the spotlight. Despite the story being about footballers and terrorists, there are some good roles for women too, though the show would hardly pass the Bechdel Test as all the woman talk and sing about are the men.
Set In Belfast, Reuben Browne plays John Kelly, a promising footballer in a team managed by the local priest, Father O’Donnell. He’s good enough to play for a First Division Team in England, but he’s become distracted by Mary (Aliza Vakil), a peace campaigner. He’s not the only one on the team with teenage hormonal urges: Protestant Del (Rory Jeffers) has taken a shine to the Catholic Christine (Lucy Carter), while Ginger (Edd Conroy) is caught kissing Bernadette (Tierna McNally) on the dance floor. The fact that these actors are playing people their own age helps with the book’s early set-up.
The first half is a delight as the footballers prepare for a grudge match against a Protestant team and early songs such as The Beautiful Game and The Party are sung with gusto by the whole company. Matt Cole’s choreography fits perfectly here, mixing tackling moves with more balletic swoops, and the football match is genuinely quite exciting. The girls’ songs, though, are more earnest and nostalgic: God’s Own Country and The Boys in The Photograph, with their Irish melodies and with their frequent reprises, ensure a melancholy runs through the show, especially in the second half when the boys begin to play games of another kind.
Lloyd Webber’s songs demand more of the female actors than of the male ones with Aliza Vakil having to find all kinds of low notes and high notes, and it’s a credit to her that she fulfils this mission with aplomb. Her chemistry with Reuben Browne is very convincing and the duets they sing are sweetly played. Browne does well, too, in his role, and he makes it clear that the choices he makes are driven by fatalism, and we believe in his resignation. The other actors are strong too, especially Lucy Carter who risks all by sleeping with the enemy and Tierna McNally who faces tragedy with wide-eyes. The hidden band, all members of the NYMT, deserves recognition also.
Director Hannah Chissick, who was behind the underrated Side Show at the Southwark Playhouse in 2016, ensures that the action is quick without ever being hurried, and, even when the whole company is on set, that the stage never looks tight. As they come for their curtain call, it’s clear that these actors are having the time of their lives on the stage of The Other Palace. Fingers crossed that these are the stars of tomorrow.
Runs until 18 August 2018 | Image: Contributed