The best Andrew Lloyd Webber musical you’ve never heard of, The Beautiful Game comes to vivid life in its long overdue Australian professional premiere.
The rare musical that is dramatic to its very core, The Beautiful Game begins with the joy and exuberance of an under-21 soccer team on the first day of training for the season. Coach Father O’Donnell captures the boys’ promise with a team photo, but by the show’s end, a number of the boys in the photograph have met tragic fates, unable to escape the violent conflict plaguing Northern Ireland in the late 1960s.
Crafting an original story, book and lyrics writer Ben Elton illuminates the terrible price of “freedom” on ordinary people. Likes the youths in West Side Story, the soccer lads feel it is their right to be at war, wielding deadly force with reckless abandon. Tender romance and characterful comedy engage the audience with the characters, making the ensuing tragedy all the more affecting.
At a time when independent musicals have become few and far between, Manilla Street Productions gifts Melbourne with a relatively lavish production, featuring a cast of 22 and band of nine musicians. Serving as both producer and director, Karen Jemison has assembled a highly talented set of performers, each of whom bring abundant energy. The cast members have a strong sense of individuality, yet Jemison has achieved a unified performance style, in which the focus of every cast member works in combination to suggest a larger picture beyond the actual libretto.
Choreography, by Sue-Ellen Shook, is neatly integrated into the action, with stylised athletic moves bringing particular flair to sequences set on the soccer pitch.
Jemison has also designed the staging, making excellent use of simple panels of steel and wire fencing to create multiple locations in the gritty Belfast town. Clearly evoking the period, costumes are smartly attractive without being unnecessarily showy.
Significant visual texture is added to the stage picture by the lighting design of Jason Bovaird. From large scale effects such as stadium lighting and church windows to subtle touches like the twilight through the lace curtains, Bovaird supports and enhances the storytelling to great effect.
Lloyd Webber’s skill with pastiche is heard in the authentic Irish sound of the music. The score is arguably one of Lloyd Webber’s very best, delivering hummable melodies that derive organically from character and drama, and, for once, avoiding incessant repetition.
Playing alongside eight fellow musicians, musical director Daniele Buatti delivers a stirring performance of the score, Special mention to Stuart Byrne (on winds) for his particularly evocative work on Irish tin whistle. Buatti’s work with the cast is also first rate, and vocal harmonies are at an absolute premium. The music is heard at its best thanks to the immersive sound design of Marcello Lo Ricco.
Experienced musical theatre performer Stephen Mahy brings a distinctly masculine presence to star soccer player John Kelly, effectively portraying the young man’s inevitable descent into darkness. Mahy conveys significant inner turmoil with neatly underplayed emotion, taking John on a convincing journey from starry eyed youth to dead-eyed man.
Burgeoning actress Stephanie Wall gives a breakout performance as dear Mary, a young woman who sports a core of steel beneath her youthful beauty. Wall carries the emotional weight of the show in Mary’s reactions to tragedies, a clear highlight coming in Wall’s superb a capella work as Mary sings “If This I What We’re Fighting For” over the injured body of teammate Daniel. Wall and Mahy enjoy strong chemistry, from their flirty first duet “Don’t Like You” to the palpable trepidation of Mary and John’s wedding night.
Nicola Bowman gives another engaging, polished performance as good Catholic girl Bernadette. Samuel Skuthorp brings cheeky presence to Bernadette’s ill-fated love GingerGregory.
Able to flip from chirpy to intense in a heartbeat, Ellie Nunan is a strong presence as Christine, a Catholic girl committing the sacrilegious sin of loving a Protestant. Playing Del, Sam Ward contrasts the seriousness of the Catholics with his portrayal of the deliberately breezy atheism of his Protestant character.
Further strong support comes from Oscar Tollofson as likable petty criminal Daniel and Des Flanagan as treacherous terrorist Thomas. David Meadows gives a delightfully realistic performance as portly priest Father O’Donnell.
Audience members who like their musical theatre free of sequins will find much to enjoy in The Beautiful Game. Delivering a potent lesson without preaching, The Beautiful Game is independent musical theatre at its very best.
The Beautiful Game plays at Chapel off Chapel, Melbourne until 29 September 2019.
Photos: Jodie Hutchinson