The Beautiful Game | Manilla Street ProductionsLeft – Stephen Mahy. Cover – Stephen Mahy, David Meadows and Stephanie Wall. Photos – Jodie Hutchinson

I continue to be impressed by the calibre of production and the quality of performance available to Melbourne audiences and with this Australian premier of The Beautiful Game, Manilla Street Productions sing to my sentiments.

With Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Book and Lyrics by Ben Elton, the original London production of The Beautiful Game opened at the Cambridge Theatre in September 2000 and ran for just under 12 months. Set in Northern Ireland in the 1970’s, the narrative charts the journey of key players within a young catholic football team as they attempt to navigate forward against a backdrop of sectarianism, poverty, oppression and long-standing religious intolerance.

While set in a specific time and place, the themes of the show resonate strongly with our current experience and understanding of terrorism; its main strength being to highlight the very real and often subtle journey to radicalisation, particularly for oppressed young men who lose sight of a way out.

Producer and Director Karen Jemison has assembled an incredibly present, intelligent and enthusiastic young cast who burst onto stage with momentum and energy and rise together seamlessly to create strong and impressive ensemble work.

Despite this score not having the lush and soaring melodies Lloyd Webber is famous for, or indeed the hit songs that made stars of his shows long before the stars of his shows were even announced, overall the assortment of ballads and anthems here remains sincerely enjoyable despite some reliance on ‘Diddly Dee’ folksy Irish cliché.

While I fully acknowledge his significant body of work, I cannot attest to be a huge fan of Ben Elton’s writing and for me, hearing his ‘voice’ in the work did on occasion grate. While the narrative is a sound one, very good in fact, the text and lyrics don’t feel sophisticated or as culturally resonant as the subject fully warrants. While the British perspective in the story of Northern Ireland is a valid and vast stake, Elton’s tone at times feels a little too observed over lived. Saying that, the book isn’t without some excellent humour but as above, the stronger component remains the treatment with its unexpected and gasp worthy twists.

While allegedly not best pleased about it and not helped by its title, The Beautiful Game is often referenced as Andrew Lloyd Webbers ‘football musical.’ While football does of course provide the show’s springboard, for me, it isn’t the male characters that compel most strongly both within the story itself and indeed in this particular production.

In title roles, Ellie Nunan and Nicola Bowman provided real backbone and perspective guts to the narrative delivering powerfully as Christine and Bernadette, but the evening’s standout was Stephanie Wall as Mary. Perfectly cast, Stephanie traversed the emotional and vocal range of this role with extraordinary conviction that does a great deal to make up for the show’s missing edge. Something in this work doesn’t work and I cannot help but feel that overall it’s the book.

We are seriously fortunate to have smaller more daring companies willing to mount musicals that realistically would not probably enjoy enormous commercial success in Melbourne’s larger houses and so with this strong and wonderfully talented cast, this really is an excellent all-round production so worth supporting.

With nearly 56% of folks in the Northern Irish region expressing a preference to remain in the EU, and a seemingly unbelievable oversight around the implications for the Northern Irish Border as part of wider Brexit discussions, enormous dissention could once again be triggered on the Emerald Isle. To that end, Manilla Street Productions should give serious consideration to remounting this show in the UK as soon as possible by way of historic reminder.

Manilla Street Productions presents
by Ben Elton and Andrew Lloyd Webber

Director Karen Jemison

Venue: Chapel off Chapel | 12 Little Chapel St, Prahran VIC
Dates: 13 – 29 September 2019
Tickets: $75 – $69



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