When the stage sets for a musical get more rapturous applause than the cast itself, it can mean one of two things. The sets are astonishingly good or the cast is astonishingly bad.
For The Boys in the Photograph the scenery is simply the most elaborate and inventive I’ve ever seen. There’s a double-decker contraption where a street scene suddenly rises up and an entire changing room appears below, a revolving football pitch, a scarily real street-riot scene and a full Irish pub where you could probably be pulled a real pint of Guinness to take the edge of your amazement.
The cast is incredibly good too, but those fantatic sets by local designer Johan Engels do upstage them.
This musical created by Andrew Lloyd-Webber and comedian Ben Elton isn’t a show as much as an event. The songs range from stirring to poignant, the script is witty and insightful, and the all-local cast has been coached to perfection in their Irish accents.
Director Janice Honeyman has coaxed the cast into some brilliant performances and makes full use of those marvellous sets. The costumes are periodic gems, and the choreography by Celeste Botha is so good that a fight, a football match and a party are presented with rich intensity.
Chief among the admirable cast are David Chevers and Carly Graeme as handsome John Kelly and haughty girlfriend Mary Maquire, Adam du Plessis as an IRA thug, and Neville Thomas as whisky-swilling, football-loving Father O’Donnel.
A 10-piece orchestra adds to the extravaganza, although its exuberance needs to be checked to prevent it from drowning out some lyrics.
The musical was written to capture the events and emotions behind the Irish civil war. It focuses on a particularly violent period around 1969 when the IRA was biting deeper and ordinary Catholics and Protestant could no longer rub along together in relative peace.
That’s not the subject for a joyous, uplifting musical, yet Elton weaves wit throughout the plot and in the lyrics to his consistently powerful songs. There’s only one drawback, and it’s presumably what has kept the musical off the world’s stages since its original year-long London run in 2001.
It’s a show with extremely limited appeal. English and Irish audiences may not want to sit through almost three hours examining such a recent war.
It’s probably not too insulting to say Americans and Australians won’t give a toss about the troubles of a far off land.
So it’s come to South Africa, where there’s a chance that audiences are not going to get what they expect.
Originally called The Beautiful Game, the musical is being advertised as a peripheral activity around the World Cup, with posters showing diving footballers rather than gun-toting soldiers.
That’s not wrong, since the story follows the fortunes of schoolboys who meet in the local football team. But anyone who expects a rousing sporty evening is going to see a social history lesson instead.
The show itself is incredibly good. It spans prejudice and morality, friendship to one versus kinship to all, the brutality of jail and the corruption of those who think they’re fighting a holy war.
Strangely, Elton has re-written the script to give us a last-minute happy ending, which seems as unrealistic as expecting Bafana Bafana to win the World Cup.
This R10.6m production is a fabulous piece of theatre, but don’t take your Vuvuzela.
The Boys in the Photograph runs at Joburg Theatre until Sunday, 11th July.
Review by Lesley Stones. For more of her writing follow the links alongside