McNelis’s Beard is a musical with a message – and a message that is powerfully delivered despite the light-hearted tone and quickfire quips that make each scene fizz. It starts in a Premier League team locker room, and it soon becomes clear that the banter and macho culture of football has its dark side.
Beard follows the story of Chris Prince (Emilio Campa), the captain of the team, as he attempts to accept his sexuality and make it known to the world, despite the rampant homophobia present in the football culture he is at the centre of. Intertwining with his story are the struggles of Sam (Hero Douglas), who thinks she’s found her ideal man and the solution to all her problems in Chris.
The story creates the opportunity for plenty of comic moments, with Chris trying to perform the role of the ‘macho’ footballer when around his best friend Westy, a scene-stealing Luke Buckley-Harris. Buckley-Harris has a gutsy voice that matches the overbearing yet likeable character he plays, and the fast pace humour of Chris and Westy’s scenes makes for great entertainment. Campa has perfect comic timing, switching from genuine enjoyment at being with his mate to not-quite-concealed nerves when he is expected to give a certain answer or take part in ‘locker-room banter’. Despite the convincing subtlety of his performance his nervous persona could at times have been more varied. The friendship between these two is one of the most problematic yet intriguing elements of the play, particularly in the fraught scene where Chris reveals his sexuality to Westy. The homophobic response to this revelation jars, yet underneath his baffled fury there is also a well conveyed sense of betrayal at the secrets that have been kept from him as he accuses Chris ‘I didn’t know the real you at all’.
The musical portrays with great clarity the struggles and difficulties of having a career in such an intensely prejudiced world, leading to interesting questions about the ethics of Chris’s behaviour, particularly as involves his relationship towards Sam. In a praiseworthy performance Douglas tugs on the heartstrings as a softly sympathetic woman deeply in love with a man she can’t have. In one particularly heartrending scene she perfectly conveys the hurt of Chris’s betrayal, passionately exclaiming ‘I was his fucking beard’. Praise should also be given to Math Roberts and Elise Busset for their performances as Andy Price and Sam’s friend Gabby. Roberts has a star turn in the hilarious cabaret scene, while Busset’s occasional lack of projection in the songs is more than made up for by her slick dancing and compelling stage presence.
Throughout the music is catchy and lively, with swinging syncopation and smart, sharp lyrics. There are also some intensely emotional songs, delivered with real feeling by the cast. One song that was particularly effective was the layering of all the different voices of the cast at the end, as the musical works up to an emotional climax. However, at times the tenor of the music felt a little similar, with occasional lack of variety in the melodic line.
Overall though Beard is a gripping musical that raises important issues in a script where humour and emotional substance is perfectly blended.