Not in the premier league

The Beautiful Game | Cambridge Theatre, London
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The Independent Culture

If it had been Elton John, you could have understood it - think of those impeccable Watford credentials. But Elton, Ben and a football musical are harder to get the mind round, particularly when it involves him getting in tandem with Andrew Lloyd Webber. You tend to picture this pair as the kind of swotty schoolboys who always found themselves the last to be picked for any team sport. Ideologically speaking, though, they'd seem, on the face of it, about as well suited to collaboration as Baroness Thatcher and Jo Brand.

If it had been Elton John, you could have understood it - think of those impeccable Watford credentials. But Elton, Ben and a football musical are harder to get the mind round, particularly when it involves him getting in tandem with Andrew Lloyd Webber. You tend to picture this pair as the kind of swotty schoolboys who always found themselves the last to be picked for any team sport. Ideologically speaking, though, they'd seem, on the face of it, about as well suited to collaboration as Baroness Thatcher and Jo Brand.

There is, of course, no reason in principle why the two of them shouldn't be able to write a stirring musical about the Troubles from the perspective of a teenage football club in Belfast. You don't need to be an Inuit to make Baked Alaska. All the same, I can't help thinking it a pity that there's already a musical called The Bandwagon.

The good news is that The Beautiful Game has its moments, with full-throated, plangent anthems; the impossibly catchy melody of its message-song, "Our Kind of Love"; and the hard-edged, exuberant synthesis, in the kicking twirls and leaps of Meryl Tankard's choreography, of the movements of football and modern ballet.

I'm somewhat less overjoyed to report that there are also substantial patches in Robert Carsen's production where the opportunism of this project turns the stomach, and you reflect that there's nothing wrong with this show that couldn't be put right by an announcement that its two very rich creators were giving every penny of their profits to the funding of some bridge-building cultural initiative in Northern Ireland.

The musical opens in the Belfast of 1969 and it quickly becomes apparent that it is going to package the Troubles in a variant of the traditional Romeo and Juliet format: love across the divide of hatred. For West Side Story read "Bog Side Story". A Protestant is excluded from the Catholic team which meets under the watchful eye of Father O'Donnell. This latter is a cleric who, in what must be a mischievous in-joke, is played by an actor (Frank Grimes) made to look the spitting image of football-mad West End producer and Everton director, Bill Kenwright.

The Mercutio-figure is a lovelorn innocent fatty (Dale Meeks) who gets brutally killed by a gang of Protestants. In a bitter twist, the Romeo (powerful David Shannon) is a young man destined for soccer stardom who, as a result of helping an old friend-turned-IRA activist, winds up interned and politicised, bashing his football disconsolately against the wire mesh of the compound perimeter.

The trouble with the show is not the Celtic-tinged music, which is never less than decent, nor the lyrics which, though uninspired, aren't actively blush-making. No, the culprit here is the book. "As far as I'm concerned, a person's first loyalty is to what they feel in their heart," says one of the good characters (clarion-voiced Josie Walker). There's nothing in that statement, though, with which Ian Paisley would be inclined to disagree. And The Beautiful Game can't make up its mind how fully it wants to distinguish the tribalisms of football and sectarian hatred.

That aspect, like much else in this confused piece, is fudged. Near the end, there's a series of frozen tableaux of the youths in their old soccer-playing days - but the nostalgia of these misty snapshots feels phoney. It wasn't all innocence back then. Lloyd Webber and Elton keep their game going only by shifting the goalposts.

Booking to March (020-7494 5080)

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