Football, love, conflict musical a winner

25 May 2010

Not everyone would agree that “football is the only reason God gave us feet”, but the players in The Boys in the Photograph certainly believe this.

The show stirs emotions with which South Africans are familiar, revolving as it does around ethnic hatred and violence, but also love and passion. Put the two together, throw in some religious tension, and you have the theme of the Andrew Lloyd Webber and Ben Elton musical, on stage at the Joburg Theatre Complex until 11 July.

The South Africa production, with an entirely local cast, is bursting with talent. Add awesome sets, Lloyd Webber’s terrific score and clever choreography, and you have a winner.

Originally called The Beautiful Game, taken from Pele’s autobiography My Life and the Beautiful Game, the musical centres on a group of youngsters growing up in Belfast in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s and early 1970s, at a time when religious intolerance and violence dominated people’s lives.

The musical opened in London in 2000 and ran for almost a year before closing. It never made it to Broadway, but was reworked and given a new name, The Boys in the Photograph, and premiered in Winnipeg, Canada in 2008.

Lloyd Webber and Elton had felt that audiences thought they were going to see a musical about football, which the original title suggests, whereas the story is far more complex. Besides, things had changed since 2000.

The young people portrayed in the musical are reaching adulthood during the Troubles, in essence a civil war in Northern Ireland that continued for 36 years. It was finally resolved in 2005, when the Irish Republican Army renounced violence and the occupying British army left Northern Ireland. A power-sharing deal was struck in 2007.

It is in fact a story about “a community divided by shared passions and above all it [is] about love in a time of terrible trouble”, says Elton, who wrote the book and the lyrics for the musical.

He and Lloyd Webber were “honoured and thrilled” when the musical was chosen to be presented in Joburg as one of the parallel events to the 2010 Fifa World Cup.

“Of course, the football theme is very relevant here at this time, but we believe that the greater themes of two communities struggling to come to terms with terrible violence and past wrongs and work towards a shared future are more relevant still,” Elton says in the programme introduction.

The parallels with apartheid South Africa, with its irrational hatred and forced separation, pop up all the time, reminding us that we were sliding into oblivion in 1990 when the tide turned.

Says Elton: “The post-apartheid struggle in South Africa to achieve a rainbow nation, and the desperate need for the young people of your great country to be allowed to live and love in peace, with whomever they choose, are clearly reflected in the Northern Irish story.”

It’s useful to see a struggle with echoes of South Africa’s former racially destructive solution being played out elsewhere in the world, in a different context, one that is now going to unite South Africans like nothing else, if only for a month.

Source: City of Johannesburg