Desperate to Score

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From the moment the audience enters London's Cambridge Theatre and sees a badly chipped proscenium arch, it is clear that The Beautiful Game is a very different kind of Andrew Lloyd Webber experience. The composer could do with a hit. The man who gave the world such glitzy long-runners as Cats and Starlight Express has not had a success on that scale since The Phantom of the Opera in 1986. Interspersed with disasters such as Sunset Boulevard and modest hits like Whistle Down the Wind, Lloyd Webber has been in limbo.

""I felt that I was treading water a little bit,"" he acknowledges. ""I needed something completely new."" The result is a theatrical partnership that has caught everyone by surprise: a collaboration with the motormouth left-wing comedian and writer Ben Elton. Since Lloyd Webber is perceived as a staunch Conservative peer, very Establishment and rather shy in public, it wasn't long before British newspapers headlined the story ""The Odd Couple."" The composer insists that he and Elton ""share the same sense of humor.""

Elton had never written for musical theater before, but Lloyd Webber sent him a television documentary about a children's football team in Belfast in 1969 and how the players were affected by the political conflicts around them. Two weeks later he got his reply: a 40-page synopsis dropped through the letterbox. The composer was immediately enthusiastic. ""It struck me as exactly the kind of show that Rodgers and Hammerstein would have written,"" he says. ""We forget that they tackled very tough subjects. South Pacific in 1949 was one of the first shows to address racism. I and theater must deal with these sorts of things.""

A musical about the i.r.a. with, incidentally, book and lyrics by Elton, liberally peppered with swearwords? This is a new direction for Lloyd Webber. Gone is the trademark lavish production; in its place director Robert Carsen presents a bare black stage, which is gradually reduced by various explosions to a bombed-out shell. On the brick wall at the back of the stage a goalpost has been chalked. It is the perfect setting for a shockingly dark story.

The plot focuses on a youth football team in 1960s Belfast and on one lad in particular, the team's golden boy, John. It follows his maturation, marriage and-after being imprisoned for an accidental crime-induction into the i.r.a. Elton's famous quickfire wit is evident. This must be the first musical with a song about the hazards of premature ejaculation, and a typically sharp routine about introducing drinking games to the Olympics would be perfectly at home in one of Elton's stand-up acts. But he packs in the dramatic punches, stealthily upping the stakes. By the end, the audience has seen a kneecapping, murders and full-scale riots.

Carsen handles the pivotal football match with aplomb. It becomes a jerkily choreographed ballet, with mimed headers, leaps and kicks throbbing with testosterone. The match is not his only coup: in the second half, a sinister line of men advances through the gloom holding glinting objects. Guns? Glasses. The lights come up, and the scene is of a cocktail party.

Lloyd Webber's music has-odd as this may sound-texture. His score's percussive feel catches the volatility and unpredictable danger of the region. The melodies themselves are variable, though when needed blend well with Elton's punchy lyrics. As is usual with this composer, the women have all the best tunes, particularly the soaring ballad Our Kind of Love. Then there are one or two banal pieces. Don't Like You, a childish chat-up tune that seems to ape the taunting rhythms of the playground, keeps returning and is rarely welcome. Elsewhere, both music and lyrics often capture the desperate sense of moral outrage, the passionate cry of those still sane enough to recognize the insanity that threatens to engulf them.

David Shannon is eminently believable as John, whose downfall is rendered all the more disturbing because of his affable ordinariness. Michael Shaeffer underplays with lethal calm as his betrayer, Thomas. But the show is stolen by Josie Walker, in a gutsy, fabulously sung performance as John's wife.

The Beautiful Game may not contain vintage Lloyd Webber torch songs. The audience does not exit marveling at the sets. Instead, they receive something rarer in a Lloyd Webber musical: emotion. Anger at the waste of generations, and celebration for an example of tough, fresh, vital theater.