“Three things you need to know about God. He’s Irish, he’s Catholic and he plays the beautiful game!”
A nation divided by religion. Friend turning against friend. And love finding a way against all odds. Written in 2000 by Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Ben Elton, The Beautiful Game (reworked in 2008 as The Boys in the Photograph) is a musical about the clashes between Protestants and Catholics in Belfast in the 1960s and 1970s.
John Kelly (Ben Kerr) is a promising footballer on a Catholic team. The team’s coach Father O’Donnell (Carl McCrystal) takes a photograph of the team to remind the boys of how they were when they began, before they go on to make decisions and choose their life’s path. John seems to be carving out a positive future for himself with Mary (Niamh Perry) but the country’s raging war leaves no one untouched. Fast-forward several years and the team are scattered, many of them dead or crippled.
Perhaps an unusual premise for a musical, yet The Beautiful Game works surprisingly well and is as shocking as it is poignant. Music is sublime and although some of the lyrics are a bit lacking, the overall effect of the songs is powerful, particularly Born in Belfast and God’s Own Country. However, Our Kind of Love – which is a beautiful song – is missing… as it was cut so that the melody could be used in Love Never Dies.
The cast’s acting is generally very strong, particularly Freddie Rogers (Thomas) who we see change from an impassioned teenager into a hardened member of the IRA (although ironically he couldn’t get his gun to work for his suicide). Singing is slightly weaker from some cast members but the ensemble really add to the group numbers and the production as a whole; the final football match is cleverly choreographed to symbolise the clashing religions and is superb.
When Niamh Perry first wowed us with her beautiful voice in I’d Do Anything, there was a worry that she was ‘too delicate’ for the stage. As Mary she proves she’s as feisty as ever and a pretty marvellous actress to boot, tugging on the heartstrings as she tries to cope with how her life has turned out. Ben Kerr has a good singing voice and impresses as the nice boy who always does the right thing, even after prison has changed him.
Natalie Douglas (Bernadette) initially hides in the background, but then comes into her own with a beautiful rendition of Let Us Love in Peace (with Alan McHale). The chemistry between these two is lovely and their characters’ nerves and awkwardness really show. In fact all of the romantic duets in this production are sung well and are quite moving.
I never thought I’d enjoy any production that was even remotely related to football, but it just goes to show that even a writer must sometimes eat their words. The cast made sure that I was emotionally engaged with the story and the characters, so I actually welcomed the new, happier ending.
The Beautiful Game is playing at the Union Theatre until 3 May 2014.
Reviewed by Michaela Clement-Hayes