Stephen Ward was this year's entry in the "forgotten" category of Baron Dame Sir Andrew Lloyd Lord Webber's back catalogue, but some of those noted flops do better as chamber pieces on the fringe. And so the Union Theatre takes on The Beautiful Game, the piece he wrote with former comedian Ben Elton, and whose title suggests is about football - but is actually about the much more musical theatre-friendly subject of sectarian violence and terrorism. Set in 1970s Belfast, it follows John (Ben Kerr) and four of his friends on an under-21s' football team with a chance of winning the local Catholic league title. But soon after winning their first game of the season, the one Protestant member of the team, Del (Stephen Barry) is hounded out by the more aggressively Nationalist of his teammates.
The heart of the story, such as it is, is the love story between John and Mary (Niamh Perry,) and the conflict in him between his loyalty to her and that to his old friend Thomas (Freddie Rogers,) the most militant of his friends and obviously destined to end up in the IRA.
But Lotte Wakeham's production struggles to bring cohesion to a story that meanders all over the place. Protestant Del's romance with Catholic Christine (Daniella Bowen) seems the sort of thing you could build a story about but the thread fizzles out, and the John/Mary story competes with that of the fates of the footballing friends, with the result that neither really grabs the attention.
For once it's not Lloyd Webber I've got the biggest problem with - his songs aren't classics but they're inoffensive enough and although the central tune, "The Boys in the Photograph" makes too many reappearances as is his wont, we're not clobbered over the head with it quite as much as in some of his shows. But Elton's plotting problems (which culminate in one of the most hamfisted conclusions I've seen in a long time) are coupled with cheesy lyrics that'd be hard to take seriously in any musical, let alone one that attempts to deal with as heavy a subject as this.
It's an established practice for actors, particularly in musicals, not to give their all in matinees so as not to lose their voices or energy by the evening performance, but it's not usually apparent to the casual observer. Unfortunately there were a few moments this afternoon when it was obvious the cast were holding back a bit, although for the most part they're strong. There's some nice moments in Tim Jackson's choreography and Wakeham's production tries to add a bit of grit but ultimately Lloyd Webber and Elton's attempt at something a bit darker is curiously and forgettably "nice."
The Beautiful Game by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Ben Elton is booking until the 3rd of May at the Union Theatre.
Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including interval.