Bend It Like Beckham
25 June 2015
I am not sure whether it is ironic or amusing (perhaps both) that at a time when Britain is endlessly talking about the evils of immigrants, and political parties pontificate about keeping Britain “British”, the West End welcomes a new musical which simply overflows with the zest, possibility, and sheer joy of multiculturalism. For make no mistake, Bend It Like Beckham, now playing at the Phoenix Theatre, is not about football – it's about the melting pot of London, the inherent fabulousness of women, and the glories of cultures learning from cultures.
An adaptation of the 2002 film (notable really for introducing Archie Punjab to the mainstream collective) Bend It Like Beckham is never going to win any literary awards. It's heavy-handed, glib and sentimental – but, in a musical, those are not handicaps. With a book by Paul Mayeda Berges and Gurinder Chada, lyrics by Charles Hart, and music by Howard Goodall, Bend It Like Beckham is both familiar and strikingly new. Happily, without question, it brims with heart.
It's a simple story. Jess is obsessed with soccer and David Beckham in particular. Her older sister, Pinky, is soon to marry and her family is a traditional Indian family, Punjabi Sikhs, conservative but warm. Her father has scrimped and saved to ensure Jess can go to University: her future as a solicitor is planned, so her life will be better than the hard life her parents lived since emigrating to Britain. Jess is noticed by Jules, a fiercely determined athlete who wants to play professional women's soccer, and encouraged to join Jules' team. She does this without being honest with her family, and the coach, Joe, realises Jess has talent – and not just with a round ball.
There follows a series of highs and lows as Jess tries to make it in the football world, falls for Joe, falls out with Jules who adores Joe, incurs the wrath of her family for her deception, and must be happy on her sister's wedding day when she would rather be playing in the grand final for her team. Of course, it all works out well in the end, but there are some teary passages along the way.
Chadha co-wrote the film and directs here. There is no doubt that the musical would have fared better if fresh eyes and hands had taken responsibility for the staging. The first Act is too long and too fiddly – it needs pruning and shaping. Most importantly, it needs to fly like one of Jess' strikes.
The entire subplot about Pinky's marriage being cancelled by her Margo and Jerry in-laws-to-be could be jettisoned with ease – it's a false plot cul-de-sac because the parents unaccountably relent in Act Two, so everyone could be spared ten minutes easily. In this and other ways, those less close to the film might have ensured brevity and brio were the buzzwords.
Act Two, however, is practically perfect. It starts with a fabulous number for the girls, Glorious, and it never looks back. It's full of great music from Goodall and the range of styles he covers is significant. He uses Punjabi tunes effectively, there is a terrific solo for Jules's mother, There She Goes, a melodious duet which is gentle and joyful, Bend It, then a stirring quintet and an overwhelmingly joyous piece which celebrates the wedding of Pinky and Teetu in contrapuntal tandem with the celebration of the football grand final win. By the time the second Act is over, the longeurs of the first have been brushed aside, and the infectious sense of harmony and happiness is irrepressible.
This is one of those musicals where it is nigh impossible not to giggle/cry at some point in the last twenty minutes, and where clapping, laughter and dancing are the inevitable responses to the finale.
Miriam Beuther's set design seems cheaper than it surely must have been. The shopping mall is particularly naff and Jess' home is not sufficiently well achieved to render a clear sense of her and her family's life. But, that said, it's all quite serviceable, and the wedding sequence, which needs to be fabulous in every way, really is. The opening of Act Two is also staged well (the changing room reveal is excellent) as is the climactic end to Act One. But a bigger, brighter, more complex set would have allowed the story to blossom and grow, as it so clearly could.
There is stylish and stylistic choreography and movement from Aletta Collins, much of which was inspired and brilliantly executed by the fit and attentive cast. Especially good were the routines in UB2, Glorious and the Act Two finale. Being about soccer necessitates some kicking of the ball, and the effects utilised were successful to varying degrees, but if you embraced the silliness inherent in the notion of staged soccer in the West End you would not be disappointed.
There is a deal of work to do in terms of balance between singer, orchestra and sound in the auditorium. For a new musical, it was hard to hear many of the lyrics. None were understandable in ensemble numbers or when soloists were singing with chorus as accompaniment/backup. There is no excuse for this kind of balance issue; not being able to understand the words to new music is singularly offputting.
Across the board, the cast is in excellent form and the stage is awash with talent. Natalie Dew is vibrant and utterly alive as Jess, the girl who wants it all. She convinces as footy obsessed and as a young woman caught between worlds. Her friendships with Jules and Tony are especially well defined and it is sweet to watch her fall for the charms of Joe. Equally, she works hard at being Pinky's sister and the daughter of her parents – and the familial bond is sound and believable. She sings with ease and gusto, a sweet and true voice ensuring that Goodall's music is well served. Her diction is excellent and her understanding of the quiet moments, the slower beats in the fast moving story, well judged.
Preeya Kalidas is terrific as Jess' sister, Pinky. She has assimilated into the suburban life with an alarming wholeheartedness; she says ‘innit' and delights in bling as naturally as she makes traditional curry dinners. Kalidas brings energy and sexy excess to her role; she sizzles. Raj Bajaj tries hard to keep up with her energy levels, as her love struck boyfriend-then-husband, Teetu, and largely succeeds. He has a winning charisma.
Lauren Samuels makes Jules her own and it is a testament to her spirited and wholehearted performance that when her mother mistakes her for a lesbian, so too do some of the audience. But she is not – she is simply a driven, determined, career woman in the making, and her sense of dogged insistence about getting where she wants to go is formidable. As is her transition from tom boy to glamour gal after the team's win in Germany. Samuels is the complete package, and an absolute joy to watch.
Sophie-Louise Dann is in superb form as Paula, Jules' “fit but fellow-less” mother. Looking like she has waltzed straight out of the Queen Vic in Eastenders, Dann is a total joy – funny, warm and desperately lonely. Her beautifully sung There She Goes in Act Two will stay with you long after you have left the theatre.
Jamal Andréas gives a genuinely easy and finely nuanced performance as Tony, Jess' best male friend. There is an infectious quality to his performance; he lights up the stage whenever he is there, and his dancing is particularly impressive. He croons well and fittingly, is funny and touching in equal measure, and radiates heart. Jamie Campbell Bower has perhaps the toughest part as Joe, the Coach who spurs Jess and Jules onto greatness. The role is not fleshed out especially well in the writing and his solo in Act Two is the least effective of Goodall's ballads here. But Bower works hard and is eminently likeable and suitably blokey to pull it off.
As Jess' parents, Tony Jayawardena and Natasha Jayetileke are as good as can be expected given the rather cliched and stereotypical roles they are burdened with. Jayawardena brings gravitas and a true sense of fatherhood to what he does; Jayetileke manages to be brutally rigid and warmly endearing, quite a feat. Together, they are a completely comprehensible unit.
The rest of the cast all sing, dance and act extremely well, with Sohm Kapila notable for her snooty turn as Teetu's Mum. The girls who make up the football team are fierce and feminine – a true band of femme fatales, everyone a cracker. It's great to see such raw, unashamed girl power on stage (and slightly hilarious, but completely right, to have some of the male ensemble objectified in a knowing way). There is some great fun with Posh and Becks' cameos too, and perhaps a La Cage Aux Folles moment at one point (look closely).
This is a slow burn musical. It takes most of the first Act to settle into rhythm but once it does it goes off like a joyous firecracker. It doesn't carry any big social messages, but it touches upon a number, and it does that with an ease and elegance which is admirable. There is great music, great dancing, colourful costumes, some tears and cheers – and the fusion of the traditional Punjabi wedding sequence with the tribal celebration of the football victory is one of the most remarkably entertaining sequences to be seen in an original musical on the West End stage in some time.
Bend It Like Beckham gives multicultural musicals a good name – and rightly so.