I’ll be honest with you, gentle reader. I really didn’t want to see Bend It Like Beckham. I really enjoyed the film, and remember it fondly; and my reaction when I heard it was being made into a stage musical was Why Can’t They Leave It Alone and Why Don’t They Write Musicals With Brand New Source Material Anymore. So I didn’t book it. However, I saw that it won the Critics’ Circle award for Best New Musical, and that Mr Mark Shenton of The Stage whose opinion I greatly value said it was the best thing since sliced naan, and one of Mrs Chrisparkle’s colleagues said they saw it a week ago and absolutely loved it. So I cut myself a huge slice of Humble Pie and booked to see it just in time, given that it’s closing on March 5th.
My original decision not to see it earlier must count as one of my poorest decisions in theatregoing history. This is a completely joyous show. You come out of the theatre with a spring in your step and an aorta full of love. It’s one of those rare instances where the cast and creative team’s affection for their project runs right through it like a stick of Bombay rock. It’s perfectly cast from the top to the bottom, the songs and arrangements are catchy and memorable, and whilst there is an element of stereotyping in some of the characters, it never strays into caricature and is both completely believable and recognisable. Its themes are timeless; its message uplifting.
Do you remember the original film? We’re back in 2001 and David Beckham is at the height of his sporting prowess. Jess, from a Sikh family living in Southall, is mad on him, and on playing football in general. Unbeknownst to her, she has been spotted by Jules, another soccer mad girl, who plays for the local Hounslow Harriers team. Jules arranges for Jess to get a trial with coach Joe, who is quietly impressed, and soon she is a vital part of the team. But all this tomboyishness is out of synch with Jess’s parents, Mr and Mrs Bhamra, who are keen to impress the family of their other daughter Pinky’s husband-to-be, the snooty Chopras. When Jess is forbidden to play football anymore, she is torn between her natural obligation to obey her parents and her desire to fulfil her talents. But does sari have to be the hardest word? (Apologies for that one). There is a solution – as the song says, at times everyone has to bend it. But what does Jess do? You’ll have to go and see it to find out.
I reckon everyone at some point in their life has had to make a decision to follow their dream or to follow their obligations or what society requires. So Jess’s dilemma is something we can all recognise. Do you fit in, and keep the peace, or do you “be yourself” and go where your heart leads? It isn’t always an easy decision. The Bhamras are a very traditional family – and even Mr Bhamra himself knows all about giving up on one’s dreams in order to do The Right Thing. But parents always know best, don’t they? Just like in Fiddler on the Roof, the older generation prizes Tradition, but the younger generation questions it; it was ever thus. And whilst we’re comparing this show with other musicals, I was delighted to see BILB even had its own version of an Oklahoma-style dream ballet sequence, where Jess suddenly finds herself transported to a soccer pitch, alone with David Beckham – although not in the traditional romantic sense, as Beckham shows her how to kick that curved ball. For Jess, that is definitely the dream come true.
The show has much to say about cross-cultural liaisons – of all types – and it brilliantly depicts them in its fusion of eastern and western musical styles and dances. Done haphazardly, this could be an absolute dog’s dinner. But the amazing side-by-side sequences of wedding celebrations and football celebrations are a perfect visual mix up of the two cultures, and the use of typical Indian instruments as part of the traditional West End band creates a musical unity for your ears; as does using both Hindi and English words to the same melody. It all works incredibly well.
Musically, of course, this is a brilliant show – you would expect nothing less with the music written by The Hired Man’s Howard Goodall, and lyrics by Phantom’s Charles Hart. The orchestration is infectious and full of character. Miriam Buether’s set is fun and authentic (although I wish there had been a way to change the score in the Hamburg match!) Katrina Lindsay’s costumes are superb, reflecting the different cultures and styles; and I particularly liked the sassy dresses the team change into for a night on the town, especially the one worn by Jules – Mrs C would look amazing in that.
But what really impressed me from the start were the superb performances from absolutely every member of the cast. Natalie Dew is simply brilliant as Jess; fun-loving, wide-eyed and awkward, a delightful trace of naughtiness, enthusiastic, and loving every minute of it. And she’s a stunning singer. Lauren Samuels is perfect as Jules, with her no-nonsense spirit wrestling with her internalised desires and sparring with a difficult mother. She’s also a stunning singer. Natasha Jayetileke is hugely entertaining as the domineering Mrs Bhamra – constantly making demands of her daughters whilst you know deep down she has a heart of gold; raising the significance of an aloo gobi to an art form. And guess what – she’s also a stunning singer. Preeya Kalidas is simply hilarious as the gorgeously vacuous Pinky, finding romance behind the bushes and squeaking out her innits. You won’t be surprised to learn she’s a stunning singer. And Sophie-Louise Dann creates a wonderful anxious mess of a mother in the character of Paula, with a voice like Joe Pasquale’s secret love child, agonising magnificently over the word “lesbian”, and, naturally, singing stunningly.
And what of the chaps? Tony Jayawardena is a brilliant Mr Bhamra, reducing the audience to hysteria with the comic timing of his throwaway lines, balancing beautifully the character’s sense of The Right Thing with his own understanding of human emotions – I thought he was terrific. For our performance, the role of Tony was taken by Rakesh Boury, Jess’s playtime pal and support – delightfully gangly and uncomfortable, and with his own very nicely confessed revelations – hashtag awks. An excellent performance. Jamie Muscato brought genuine warmth and decency to the role of Joe, and he really conveys the scariness of interacting with Jess’s family when they don’t want to hear what he has to say. Raj Bajaj is a fantastically goofy Teetu, giving it large at the engagement party; intellectually a perfect match for Pinky; strictly speaking, he really should be called Perky.
The fantastic ensemble includes Irvine Iqbal and Sohm Kapila as Teetu’s marvellously haughty parents, Harveen Mann, Buckso Dhillon-Woolley among the wonderfully busybody aunties, and the best-looking team of footballers I’ve ever seen. Everyone gives their all, everyone’s a great dancer, everyone’s hugely committed to the show. The onstage joy spills out into the auditorium – in fact in the interval, I saw a guy in the bar doing his version of Teetu’s dance – it was quite impressive! One of those occasions when you leave the theatre a better person from the one you went in. You’ve got until March 5th to see it – and I reckon that last night performance is going to be One Swell Party. A privilege to be there – one of the best shows I’ve ever seen.
P.S. It’s been years since I’ve been to the Phoenix Theatre – 32 years to be precise! I’d forgotten how charming it is.
Production photos by Ellie Kurttz