The creators of The Beautiful Game have no truck with subtext. If there’s a point to be made, they will make it, in firm dialogue, in overt lyrics, and then in dialogue again, just to be sure. That leaves us in no doubt whatsoever of this earnest, ambitious musical’s intentions, but there is little room left for the drama, artistic expression and emotional depth that might lift the show above a well-meaning, Wikipedia-referencing blog on the Troubles, which occasionally breaks into Riverdance.
That’s a shame, as the Union Theatre’s spirited revival is certainly timely, with Michael D Higgins’ current visit, and the intimate venue’s crisp, stripped-back staging proves an effective framework for the work that divided critics on its 2000 West End debut. The combination of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s sweeping romantic vision and Ben Elton’s unflinching populism is certainly an intriguing proposition, and there are glimpses of the knockout the pair might have produced – a West Side Story for 1960s Belfast.
Unfortunately, the moment either spots a cliché, they run towards it beaming, arms outstretched; it’s perilously close to a ‘Make love, not war’ bumper sticker. This is not the place to come for nuanced political debate, nor narrative thrills. The plot is alarmingly predictable, and the moral hammered home through repetitive scenes and songs. Most overlap thematically, and few numbers tell us anything that hasn’t already been expressed, frequently and bluntly.