"The Beautiful Game is for sure light years away from Starlight Express", Andrew Lloyd Webber writes in the programme notes for his new musical. Making, perhaps, one of the understatements of the year.
The changes are obvious from the moment you enter the auditorium. Where's the racetrack or piles of rubbish or opera house motif? There's nothing the least bit elaborate about Michael Levine's blackened shell of a set with rubbled proscenium arch. Not very Webber-esque at all.
No, Britain's most successful composer isn't sticking to characteristic formulae here, nor is he resting on his laurels. He's taking risks and, like him or loathe him, you've got to admire that. Risk number one. A creative team who, bar himself, have never worked on a musical. Director Robert Carsen's background is mainly in opera while choreographer Meryl Tankard hails from a dance company. And then there's the most unlikely partner of all: Ben Elton, the leftie comedian-cum-novelist-cum-playwright (think Popcorn) who's written both the book and lyrics.
Risk number two. Unlike almost every major musical, The Beautiful Game is a completely original story. It's not adapted from a novel or a straight play or a film. Risk number three. The set. Risk number four. A cast of largely unknowns. And the list goes on and on.
What a disaster it all could have been. And yet isn't. Elton's tale about an amateur Belfast football team torn apart by the Troubles is like an Irish West Side Story, with Catholics battling Protestants and young romances and ambitions held hostage in the middle. Lloyd Webber stalwarts may balk at the serious nature of the piece (two characters are murdered, one maimed), the political overtones and the rather risque lyrics (how often do you hear on-stage rhymes ending in 'shit' and 'twat'?) but, in my opinion, it works.
The young, enthusiastic cast (all sporting convincing though thankfully softened accents) help. Though revolving around a football team, the strongest characters are in fact women, the girlfriends and later wives who struggle to love in the face of violence. Josie Walker is especially impressive as Mary whose husband John (David Shannon) misses out on his chance to play professionally and becomes embroiled in IRA terrorism. Hannah Waddingham as the Catholic girl who falls in love with a Protestant also displays a fine voice.
Special praise goes, too, to Tankard's choreography whose on-the-pitch numbers are fantastic. I never knew football could be so balletic.
The Beautiful Game is not perfect. The pace drags a bit in the first act, the close of the second verges on the preachy and, while there are some nice ballads, there aren't enough memorable tunes. But I would, nevertheless, count the Lloyd Webber-Elton collaboration a success - surprising, refreshing and really rather exciting.
Another WOS reviewer agreed....
People were surprised, even stunned, when Andrew Lloyd Webber and Ben Elton announced that they were joining forces to write a musical together; but the result has been surprising and at times stunning. The partnership has galvanised the composer to his best musical since The Phantom of the Opera, his most interesting since Evita, and his most commercially unlikely since Cats.
That last comparison, of course, is a good omen: nobody thought a musicalisation of TS Eliot poems would be a success either, but it's now the longest running musical on either side of the Atlantic. So a musical about the Irish Troubles isn't as strange as it first seems; and not only have the writers applied considerable integrity to their work, but they've also given it an engaging human face.
Far from being at one remove from the stuff of real life, as such previous Lloyd Webber incarnations as the overblown one-time movie star of Sunset Boulevard or the people-as-trains or cats device of Starlight Express and Cats were, this sometimes sombre, serious and searching work follows a group of Belfast teenagers from youthful enthusiasm as members of a football team to the adult reality of a society that blows apart their dreams, ambitions and lives.
Of course, the show is open to charges of simplifying and sentimentalising a truly epic societal schism (just as Evita was criticised 20 years ago for simplifying and glorifying a dictatorship), but Elton's script - matched by Lloyd Webber's often haunting score - doesn't shy away from some hard truths. A powerful speech near the end of the show boldly encapsulates the conflict as a war that will never be won: an IRA man, who we've watched as he's transformed from an earnest teenager to a devious, calculating operator, talks of how each side fights only to stop the other from winning, and if they ensure that the struggle passes onto the next generation, that is victory enough.
That a musical even dares to enter such charged and troubled waters is undoubtedly fascinating. And the show - Lloyd Webber's first yet to tell an original story rather than be based on previously existing sources, and also his first to have real, dramatic scenes as opposed to be through-sung - is tough in other ways, too. Robert Carsen's deliberately bleak and physically ugly production, staged behind a crumbling, bomb-blasted proscenium and on an otherwise virtually bare stage, includes such disturbing scenes as an IRA knee-capping, two onstage murders and a long sequence set in an internment prison.
But there's uplift, too, not least in Lloyd Webber's passionate score, inflected with Irish folk song and rock melody, which has its customary power ballads but is elsewhere surprisingly understated - there's even a song for the heroine that is performed a capella. Josie Walker, who sings it, is a rich and rare find among a virtually unknown cast, all of whom perform with terrific commitment. There's also some terrific, galvanisingly exciting choreography by Meryl Tankard, that superbly summons up the spirit and kinetic energy of football.
This exciting musical marks an honourable return to intimate storytelling, and a million miles away from the blockbuster spectacle of Lloyd Webber's earlier shows, offers the encouraging spectacle instead of an artist who is happy to stretch the boundaries of his craft and do something different. Let's hope he can take his audience with him on this journey: it is well worth travelling.