Theatricalised slice of Irish Troubles
By Owen James
Amidst the madness of Fringe, independent company Manilla Street Productions are presenting a rarely-performed Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Tim Rice musical about the lives of a football team wrestling with pride and confrontation during ‘The Troubles’. This is a high-quality production of material that I found at times unfulfilling and disjointed, but full kudos to Manilla Street Productions for choosing to tackle this little-known show.
Lloyd-Webber’s score is nothing groundbreaking, but suitably serves the emotional elements of the story. Though rife with generic and poorly-written lyrics that hinder potential character development, there are beautiful ballads and dynamic ensemble numbers peppered throughout. The book by respected veteran writer Ben Elton is at its best when tackling the darker themes stewing beneath these characters’ lives, crafting moments of emotion that are deeply affecting.
Director/producer Karen Jemison has brought the world of 1969 Belfast to life with evident understanding of the political and religious thunderstorm these conflicted young men are swallowed by. It is this ongoing conflict – both in their heads and on the streets – that is at the heart of The Beautiful Game, where you either take a side, or someone will choose one for you. Jemison has injected the production with a realistic sense of energy and danger that makes for compelling, engaging character work.
Choreography by Sue-Ellen Shook is seamlessly integrated into blocking, executed by an ensemble at the top of their game (no pun intended). A football match dissolves into a competitive, masculine dance sequence and out again in a West Side Story-esque blend of athleticism and choreographic metaphor. Daniele Buatti’s expert musical direction embraces the tender Irish melodies and rousing, chanted anthems of Lloyd-Webber’s score with vivacity and concentrated delicacy.
Stephen Mahy brings innocence and vulnerability to ambitious footballer John Kelly. This is a great vehicle for Mahy’s talents, his versatile voice gliding over difficult high melodies with ease – Mahy can sing anything. Stephanie Wall has crafted a detailed character in love interest Mary, and executes a perfect rendition of heartfelt, part-acapella ballad ‘If This Is What We’re Fighting For’.
David Meadows is a standout as Father O’Donnell, bringing gravitas and humour to this commanding but compassionate man, and finding depth in scenes both celebratory and devastating. Des Flanagan as bitter, turbulent Thomas carries the character’s complicated arc with building intensity in a delightfully intimidating and exceptional performance.
Sound design by Marcello Lo Ricco is superb, highlighting crisp and clean vocals and every note from the nine-piece band. Lighting designer Jason Bovaird has once again transformed the intimate Chapel into a colourful paradise, creating menacing alleyways, rowdy pubs, hotel rooms and bright football ovals, all with distant, twinkling Irish hues hanging over every desperate character’s decision.
The material is undoubtedly imbued with heart and passion, but does not always connect its serious and comedic elements in a believable manner, creating a sometimes confusing dichotomy of tone. The extremely strong cast and production team of Manilla Street have played to the show’s many strengths with a very faithful, polished presentation – audiences will undoubtedly relish the professional performances and quality of this production. I cannot wait to see what Manilla Street bring us next.
Running at Chapel Off Chapel until 29th September