The Beautiful Game is set in Belfast in 1969 and centres around an amateur Catholic football team and their attempts to overcome the violence that has engulfed their community. The main plot follows John, the team’s star player, and his wooing of Mary. As Mary, Niamh Perry is the heart of the production, shining in a star performance. She is well matched and has great chemistry with Ben Kerr as John.
A secondary love plots follows Bernadette who has been in love with Ginger O’Shaughnessy since they were children. As Bernadette, Natalie Douglas gives a beautifully nuanced performance, at first hilariously comic as the awkward virgin and later very moving when she learns of Ginger’s death the night after their first kiss. Alan McHale is also very good as Ginger, but we get very little of him before his untimely death and thus are not as moved by it as we should be. This is not the fault of the actors – Douglas and McHale do wonders with what little time they have together – it is the fault of book writer Ben Elton and, indeed, most of the problems with this show fall at his feet. Too often scenes seem forced and artificially curtailed.
There is a third love plot in which Christine defies her Catholic upbringing not only by going with several boys but also by marrying Del, an atheist from a Protestant family. Daniella Bowen is excellent as Christine and she is well supported by Stephen Barry who gives a charming performance as Del. Their duet ("Born in Belfast") is the one number in which Lloyd Webber really embraces his rocky roots and I wish that more of the score would be like that. Don’t get me wrong – The Beautiful Game contains some beautiful songs ("God’s Own Country", "All the Love I Have" and "If This is What We’re Fighting For" for example) and some showstoppers (the best of which is the title song), but it also has a few very repetitive songs ("Don’t Like You" being the worst culprit) which could do with some cutting or replacing.
Something that helps the weaknesses in the score is Tim Jackson‘s inventive staging of the numbers, particularly the football matches, which are a highlight. He is greatly aided in this by the lighting design of Derek Anderson, and Benjamin Holder and Tom Kelly’s careful molding of the ensemble singing.
There is no denying that The Beautiful Game has it’s faults but it is still well worth a look and I can’t deny that even this hard-hearted critic shed a tear at the end.