This show is ideal — for anyone who loves Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music, is football crazy and has an enduring curiosity about Irish republican politics — so it’s faintly surprising the tiny Union Theatre can fill even 80 seats a night with what has to be the rarest combination of niche musical niches.
Timely revival though: in a week where the Irish President arrived on a state visit bringing former IRA commander Martin McGuinness to meet the Queen, it’s heartwarming to reflect how far we’ve come in the 45 years since this piece was set at the height of “the Troubles” in Belfast and the bombings in London.
However, as countless Saturday afternoon telly pundits have informed us, “it’s a game of two halves” and you have to sit through the flaccid and over-long first to get to a tauter, more dramatically exciting second. In the first, it’s a case of boy plays football, boy meets girl, boy gets girl, girl gets pregnant. It’s relieved only by the broad smile and broader shoulders of Stephen Barry playing Del, the token Proddy in the Catholic boys’ footy team coached by a brilliantly on-form Carl McCrystal as Father O’Donnell.
In the second act the team mates have gone their separate adult ways, including one to the IRA, so it’s a case of boy gets jail, boy gets out, boy gets gun, boy gets kneecapped and girl brings up baby alone — but both tension and pace are ratcheted up a generous gear. There’s tangible jeopardy in what the characters’ outcomes might be and fine acting too, particularly from Freddie Rogers as the unapologetic provo firebrand.
The music’s mostly watery Hibernian lilts with a couple of low-energy anthems but the score was robbed of its ‘best song’ in this 2009 rewrite after Lloyd Webber excised Our Kind of Love to re-work it as Love Never Dies for his much-maligned Phantom sequel. Although the singing is excellent as you expect from young casts in venues like this, there isn’t a take-home song to hum on the tube.
Lotte Wakeham’s sharply-observed production divides us, like football terraces or the Peace Lines in the Falls Road, across a traverse staging with plenty of barbed wire, graffiti and Irish tricolours festooning the theatre — it’s a pity the Union didn’t take the opportunity to paint its grotty toilets green and orange for the occasion — and David Shields’s design definitely sets the scene.
Benjamin Holder leads a sprightly five-piece concealed band, definitely one up on the Union’s usual piano or back-corner trio accompaniment and making the very best of the material, and Tim Jackson’s slickly detailed choreography avoids Riverdance cliché and moves the scenes along particularly after the interval. The team hired vocal coach Eamon Haughian for the accent and it’s clear the cast took his lessons to heart: not only does everyone sound as though they came from exactly the same three streets in Belfast, they all sound as if they’ve got a touch of Ian Paisley in their stentorian delivery. To be sure.
The Beautiful Game continues at the Union Theatre, 204 Union Street SE1, until 3 May, tickets £18-£20. For more information and to book see the theatre website. We paid for tickets to this production.