Down-on-her-luck journalist Sam (Hero Douglas) thinks she’s scored a goal when she moves in with the young and handsome Chelsea captain Chris (Emilio Campa). But Chris has a secret that he is keeping from everyone in his life. Terrified of the potential backlash and fan reaction, Chris is hiding his homosexuality from the world, and dying inside because of it. In just 70 snappy minutes, Eoghan McNelis’ new musical tells this intriguing story and manages to be at once hilarious, heart-breaking and thoroughly entertaining.
The word ‘beard’ takes on a cheeky double meaning in the play. On the one hand, Chris struggles to grow a beard in solidarity with the Chelsea manager, egged on and teased by his bestie Westy (Luke Buckley Harris). But it also takes on a wholly different meaning, which I won’t spoil, but if you are aware of the subject matter of the play then you may be able to guess what I am referring to. This use of double entendre is an example of this play’s wit; it knows how to engage and appeal to its audience without excluding others.
The Burton Taylor Studio perhaps seems an odd location to stage a musical, but it worked (mostly) well for this production. With a cast of just 5 actors and several live musicians, the intimate space helped connect the audience to the performers and feel the emotion of the piece. I will admit some of the lyrics were lost slightly, but that’s the hazard of performing without individual microphones. However, this was generally not a problem and the tech crew adjusted well to any small issues in this area. The set was minimalist but projection work, strong lighting and sound design helped paint a picture of the world for the audience. Furthermore, it is always a joy to see live musicians on stage as it adds that extra layer of magic to a performance. The musicians performed the score excellently and really complimented the singing; entering to the pianist’s precursory music was fantastic.
Speaking of singing, the real strength here was in the stellar vocal performances. Each cast member brought something different and had their moment to shine throughout the performance. Westy and Sam’s best friend Gabby (Elise Busset) performed a hilariously raunchy number and it was so much fun to see the cast giving it their all and clearly enjoying taking part in this musical. Another standout number was a cabaret-style piece performed by Chris’ brother Andy (Máth Roberts), which recounted a short history of homophobia in British politics. A song that was both educational and entertaining, Roberts connected so well with the audience. Roberts was flanked by Campa and Buckley Harris wielding umbrellas and dancing with extreme bravado to hilarious effect, with everyone laughing at the antics on stage. The songs themselves were well-written and catchy, driving the story onward in an unexpected manner.
I honestly could not single out a standout performer in this cast, as everyone had such a different role. That being said, I did thoroughly enjoy the humour Busset heaped onto her bawdy character. Campa was a strong lead and conveyed the pain of his predicament well; he struck a good balance between silly and serious, and his connection to Douglas definitely carried the show in the right direction. Overall, the cast was energetic and had fun, which is always important and vastly improves a piece of theatre.
This musical may be, at first glance, a bit of light entertainment, but it does contain a striking message about the extent of rampant homophobia in sport. This play acts to highlight toxicity in the fans and industry in general and champions individual acts of bravery. It’s a deep moral for a play that also features a song about how to initiate a sexual experience, but the contrast within the play only works to bring out the importance of its message more. If you choose to see this play, which I highly recommend you do, then you won’t be leaving with a blank mind, and you may even be inspired to look into some of the stories, people and events referenced throughout the musical. And maybe you will even be inspired to do more. As the play affirms, it is impossible to expect a single person’s actions to change the entire world, but every courageous act dismantles problematic structures just a little bit more. So, go forth, sing your hearts out, and get your tickets for Beard.