This show, set during the troubles in Belfast in 1969, ran for just over 11 months at The Cambridge Theatre in 2000-2001. In 2008 Elton and Lloyd Webber remounted it as The Boys in the Photograph. Once more it was not particularly successful.
Part of the answer is that the show turns out to be the proverbial game of two halves. Act One acquaints us with a young football team, coached by the cheerily unpuritannical Father O’Donnell, consisting of 10 Catholics and one atheist. The match could prove to be the making of the church-based club and of the career of one young man in particular.
But the club cannot, in Belfast in 1969, concentrate purely on the forthcoming match. A larger, murderous match is being played out in the streets through which they come to train. Eventually this lust for sectarian murder directly affects the team itself. Thereafter everyone is under violent pressure to take sides, however little some wish to do so.
But, so far, so good. The dialogue is (frequently wittily) to the point, the acting and singing are competent (sometimes more than that). And the stark interruption of the evenings principal romantic story by a character’s abrupt change of heart is, because of the gentle reality of their relationship heretofore, is indeed affecting.
The problem is that, had Elton and Lloyd Webber wanted to write a stark tragedy of circumstance, they could have stopped there.
But, obviously, an hour’s tragedy does not fill an evening in West End theatre. And the genre requires that although we may be stricken by the pathos that reigns at the interval, we must after that be given something uplifting to take us out into the night. The ungiving, unreasoning hatred, which has brought us to the interval, must somehow be alleviated, if not resolved.
Something of the sort does occur…
The problem for Elton and Lloyd Webber is that we know that the eventual formal cessation of hostilities has yet to bring habitual peace to some parts of Belfast. There still remain elements in Northern Ireland who do not want a happy ending. The show makes that clear even as it attempts to find peace and happiness coming to some individuals.
But the hard fact of musicals is that most audiences want to leave feeling uplifted, even if they have accepted he stark truth f the situation which has been played out in front of them. Somehow, as Cameron Macintosh’s publicity for Les Mis puts it, they want to see redemption writ large.
There are, of course, obvious comparisons to be made between this show and West Side Story and Les Miserables. And when you consider the matter, both those achieve such closure as they do by exercising a kind of higher sentimentality. What this show really needs is a musical number of the order of ‘There’s a Place for Us’.
In this context it matters that Father O’Donnell’s last words ‘Let us love in peace’ are spoken rather than sung. A tale of tragedy in the musical theatre has to end with an anthem.
It may be that with big voices in a large theatre and a full orchestra, an emotional whammy could have been pulled off. But that does not quite happen here.
All that said, anyone interested in the post-second world war musical could see this show with interest. But it’s an illustration of ‘what might have been’ rather than a neglected masterpiece.