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The Beautiful Game – Review.

May 14, 2014

Seen at the Union Theatre on the afternoon of 3rd May 2014.

It’s amazing what a tiny auditorium and the simplicity of a few wooden benches can do for a show that lasted only a year in the West End over a decade ago.

Staging in the traverse, with the audience divided both for football and politics simply works, and by allowing the cast to stand behind the audience (to “cheer the team from the stands”) and even interact, we are drawn in ever further as the action progresses.

In the hands of a hugely talented young cast, director, choreographer and designer, suddenly the show is a deeply moving experience, with a perfect 5 piece band and unamplified voices singing the message loud and crystal clear.

Though it’s really about the “boys in the photograph,” a Catholic youth football team who won a cup at the start of the Irish troubles in 1969, it’s the women who tell the story, and this group are outstanding. Niamh Perry is probably the best known name in the cast;  her central performance as an idealist willing to work for peace, peacefully, is the cornerstone of the whole tale.

The defining moment of the show is a searingly simple duet of “God’s Own Country.” Sung with Joanna O’Hare, the divisions are clearly widening as a perfectly staged moment has one side of the audience receiving white “Catholic,” the other orange “Protestant” leaflets. Inventive, memorable and simply heart-breaking.

It should also be noted that Ms O’Hare has more than a few “Diana Morales / Mr Karp” moments as she effortlessly becomes a bedside table, sports-hall coat hanger and well, clothes line, rather than ice-cream cone. Cleverly used, but not to the total extent of her abilities, perhaps.

Natalie Douglas on the other hand is an actor of great versatility, coping with a huge emotional range from infatuation to first love to bereavement. Her co-star in this, Alan McHale creates a chemistry that is worth noting for future casting of a young couple. His shock exit left a gap that cast a shadow over the entire production – true stage presence.

Also a name to watch in future is Ben Kerr. Rangy sportsman, young and undisciplined, there’s a touch of John Barrowman about his musical theatre range.

Mentions too for lethal Freddie Rogers, and another strongly paired couple of Stephen Barry and Daniella Bowen, giving hugely credible performances as proto-hippies with the right ideas. Not forgetting Carl McCrystal either – clearly an actor who works as a priest when not performing, and Leigh Lothian with a neat parody of a newscaster.

Sure, there are anachronisms in Ben Elton’s book, but the impact is unforgettable, and I can only hope somebody with a perfect venue can find a way to give the production the longer life it deserves.

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