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Romance, humour and drama played out in the Beautiful Game

The Beautiful Game, Rugby Theatre, until Oct 27

It is poignant that this revival set during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and which premiered in the West End nearly 20 years ago, should find the “Irish Question” once more on our front pages. This vibrant musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Ben Elton features a group of teenagers growing up in 1969. It follows their fortunes as an under-21 soccer team, hence the title.

This Catholic team includes one atheist player, Del, who comes from a Protestant family. Their coach is also a Catholic priest, played humorously by Peter Herring sporting a Dave Allen-esque wig. Director David Allen (no relation) says: “If you’re not a sports fan, the football is only one element. The story is full of romance, humour and drama, and runs the gamut of human emotions.” The plot revolves around the romantic, religious and political dynamics of the ensemble cast but mostly centres on the team’s star player John (Luke Bingham) and Mary (Gracey Spring). We see their relationship blossom from initial locker-room teasing to their eventual marriage, which is then tested once John is arrested and interned for aiding teammate Thomas (Julien Carrouche), an IRA terrorist. Supporting love stories come from shy, unfortunate Ginger (Aaron Evans) and devout Catholic Bernadette (Lucy Jane Baillie) as well as atheist, internationalist Del (Mark Mo Haycox) and Christine (Danielle Boughey). The theatrical logistics of the multiple locations are handled well with rolling scenery and back projection. Liam Walker, conducting a live orchestra, provides a soundtrack of Gaelic themed accompaniment to some strong vocals from the young principals. Their costumes and hair are on point for that odd time between the swinging sixties and punk seventies. Set dressing with a Teasmaid and trouser press add period authenticity to the mise en scene. Following an establishing photo-montage and BBC Radio announcements, the titular opening number provides an upbeat start and features vocals from the main cast with clever soccer choreography. This is followed quickly by the moving “Boys in the Photograph” which is sometimes used as an alternate title for the show. The girls’ chorus harmonise beautifully and when the song is reprised later the lyric provides a moving reminder of the casualties of the conflict. Occasionally Ben Elton’s humour and trite lyrics sit uneasily with the violence but the company power through on enthusiasm and some standout individual performances. Gracey Spring holds the stage as Mary and her vocal range is impressive. A duet between Ginger and Bernadette gives Aaron Evans’ fine baritone a chance to shine. All the interaction between the girls has a natural charm and an un-credited vocal coach has produced excellent regional accents for the Northern Irish milieu. Luke Bingham’s “Clean the Kit” number comes on all Feargal Sharkey. In the Second Act again the affective use of reprised melodies and lyrics adds to the emotional journey as the shifting political allegiances change lives forever. Mary’s initially acapella solo in “All the Love I Have” is quite heart breaking.

However, despite the emotional roller-coaster, the audience responded enthusiastically to the curtain call which ended appropriately with a Mexican wave. It was obvious the cast had also greatly enjoyed the experience, and this factor made what might have been a sombre evening into a joyous one. Booking online or calling the box office on 01788 541234.

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