Team Spirit Wins Again

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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 show. 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. Sunset Boulevard lost his Really Useful Group millions of dollars in 1993. Whistle Down the Wind, which opened in London two years ago, is at least on course to make its money back. But the announcement of a new Lloyd Webber musical no longer inspires the same sense of unbridled excitement it once did. There is a feeling that some sort of change of direction is needed.

That is a sentiment Lloyd Webber himself endorses. "I felt that I was treading water a little bit," he says. "I needed something completely new." The result is a theatrical partnership that 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? Even with the populist-sounding football theme, rumors circulated that Lloyd Webber was alienating his traditional audience. He remains bullish, and states that the show will open with a $1.5 million cash advance, with further reservations totaling $600,000. "The sense that I get from the letters I have received is one of relief," he says. "Audiences seem to be saying, 'Thank goodness for a grown-up musical' and there aren't many of those about at the moment." By careful cost watching, his team has also kept the price tag of The Beautiful Game under $3 million, relatively cheap for a West End musical. The Witches of Eastwick cost close to $7 million.

Lloyd Webber does not, however, seek to minimize the dangers. "There's a hell of a lot riding on this for me and Ben," he says. "It has not been easy to raise the money for it, partly because I haven't had a huge hit for a while. If it works, though, I believe I've found a new long-term collaborator in Ben. At the end of the day, you do what you want. I love musicals, and if I cannot take a risk every now and then, I don't want to write them any more."

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 there is a hilarious routine about introducing drinking games to the Olympics that 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 is odd as this may sound a triumph of texture. His orchestrations incorporate ominous tapping drums, and the score's percussive feel catches the volatility and unpredictable danger of the region. The melodies themselves are variable. Two big numbers are suffused with real emotion, blending wonderfully 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 probably deliberately apes the taunting rhythms of the playground, keeps returning and is rarely welcome. Yet almost everywhere, both music and lyrics capture the desperate sense of moral outrage, the passionate cry of those still sane enough to recognize the insanity that threatens to engulf them.

The cast members play their hearts out. David Shannon is eminently believable as John, whose downfall is rendered 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 tremendously 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 emerge angrily mourning the waste of generations and saluting an example of tough, fresh, vital theater.