Review – Bend It Like Beckham, Phoenix Theatre, 10th February 2016

Bend It Like BeckhamI’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.

The BharmasMy 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.

Lauren Samuels and Natalie DewDo 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.

Natasha JayetilekeI 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.

Preeya KalidasThe 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.

Tony JayawardenaMusically, 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.

Sophie Louise DannBut 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.

Lauren Samuels and the teamAnd 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.

Natalie Dew and Jamie MuscatoThe 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.

Engagement PartyP.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

Review – The Hired Man, Studio at the Curve, Leicester, 21st April 2013

The Hired Man 19841984. Not the scary Orwellian one but the real one, which was probably even more scary in retrospect. Five years into the late Baroness Thatcher’s regime that changed the nation forever. Two years after the Falklands Conflict; the time of the Miners’ Strike; protests at Greenham Common; ah, happy days. And a little musical opened at the Astoria Theatre (now G-A-Y) with a book by Melvyn Bragg and music by Howard Goodall. I went to see it on 2nd February 1985 according to my ticket stub, and was totally blown away by its intensity, emotion, terrific score and amazing cast. That original production was born at the old Leicester Haymarket theatre, and in a sense, thirty years later, it’s come home.

The Hired Man 2013In the intervening years it hasn’t lost any of its relevance. The subjugation of the hired man to the demands, whims and mercy of his employer (“the day of rest is Man’s invention”, according to the lyrics), means it can be tough to get right that work/life balance, to the detriment of relationships. Workers’ rights, union clashes, young men going off to war and not coming back, plus the trials and tribulations of young love – all human life is here in the not so idyllic Lake District of a hundred years ago.

Normally I try not to give away too much of the plot of plays and shows but in this case I have found it virtually impossible. So if you’re going to see it and you don’t know the story yet, please bookmark this page and come back after the show! Otherwise, carry on…

David Hunter“The Hired Man” really is the complete package. It has a very convincing and gripping story line, fantastic memorable songs and it’s laden with emotion without ever being mawkish or sensational. I confessed to Mrs Chrisparkle that when I saw it in the 1980s it made me cry. In the interval she smirked, “Have we come to the bit that made you cry yet?” “No”, I replied, summoning up all the masculinity I could muster. Then came the second act. By curtain call she was in floods of tears. Not only her, but I would guess a good half of the audience had reached for the Kleenex. The lady to my left had been solidly weeping for the last half hour. The light caught the bald head of an older man in the second row as he kept on bobbing up and down to the rhythm of his sobs. Few escape this show’s emotional tentacles. That’ll teach Mrs C for being so cocky.

Julie AthertonThis production comes to the Curve as a co-production with the Mercury Theatre Colchester, and is staged in their Studio theatre. This was our first visit to the Studio, and I must say I was well impressed. Comfortable, plenty of legroom, pretty good sightlines and an intimate, experimental vibe, even though it is considerably larger than other “Studio” type theatres I’ve visited. Its layout put me in the mind of the old Mermaid Theatre as it used to be in the “good old days” – a fairly wide stage with just a bank of seats gently escalating up to heaven. The whole Curve complex is quickly becoming one of my favourite venues – the place was packed with people going round craft stalls, watching a gospel choir, meeting for coffee and lunch (delicious food, including gluten-free options in the café), plus it has friendly staff and their ticket prices are delightfully sensible. And I love how you can peek through the offstage area of the main theatre and see all the props and costumes in waiting, as the ASMs go about their business.

Jamie BarnardBack to the Hired Man. It’s one of those productions where the cast play the instruments, apart from Richard Reeday, the Musical Director, on the piano. That really helps to combine the music into the actors’ performance, which in turn assists and enforces the plot development of a musical. Howard Goodall’s lyrics are both tender and hard hitting and fit his tunes perfectly. The arrangements reflect the rural settings; the use of trumpets gives a sense of country bands, and there’s even a harp to enhance the more romantic aspects. The music is performed beautifully throughout. My favourite song from the show, “What a Fool I’ve been”, which has been for many years a regular in my shower repertoire, has an inventive piano backing of anxious staccato notes that panic up and down the keyboard, reflecting John’s inner turmoil. Terrific stuff. Juliet Shillingford’s deceptively simple set nicely suggests the open countryside, but converts easily to the dinginess of John and Emily’s small cottage, the exposed terror of the French battlefields, and the claustrophobia of the coalface.

Mark StobbartThere are some superb performances that add to the tugging of the heartstrings. One of my main recollections of the 1980s production was the extraordinary Olivier award winning performance of Paul Clarkson as John, whose steely gaze burnt through the audience’s combined retina as you witnessed his sorrows, his furies, his delights and his ability to take every blow that life dishes out. So I was curious, if not concerned, to find out how David Hunter would take to the role in this production. I’m pleased to say he’s very different and gives you an excellent insight into other aspects that make up the character of John.

Gary TushawDavid Hunter is a much quieter, calmer John; where Paul Clarkson exploded with resentment and angst, Mr Hunter chooses more to internalise his passions but his expressions and superb singing voice convey the full range of emotions that John experiences. He has an open innocence in the early days of his love with Emily (the wonderful “Say Farewell” was performed with youthful exuberance); and when he performed “What a Fool I’ve been” it really gave me goosebumps up and down my arms. John’s slow realisation that Emily and Jackson have been seeing each other behind his back and which leads into that song was done perfectly. That scene also culminates in the most exciting, technically precise and dramatic stage fight I’ve ever seen. The lady to my left, who was to blub uncontrollably later on, hid her eyes behind her hands as she couldn’t bear to see another punch land – brilliant work by Mr Hunter and Kit Orton as Jackson. In the second half, he ages very convincingly into someone now coping with the different challenges of mining and war, and managing his family. Like the whole cast, Mr Hunter is particularly good at connecting eye to eye with audience members – when he was dealing with his emotional question “What would you say to your son, if you were me” he looked straight at me and I believed absolutely that he was genuinely seeking my advice. At the end of the show, when he finally goes back to the land, he brings a triumphant resilience to the last reprise of the main theme. It’s a really mature performance and offers for big roles ought to be dropping on his doormat on a daily basis.

Kit OrtonEqually, if not more, astonishing a performance comes from Julie Atherton as Emily. We’ve seen Miss Atherton a couple of times before and she always gives a great performance – she was excellent as Sister Mary Robert in Sister Act. Her voice is as clear as a bell and as powerful as a rocket and she couldn’t keep her emotions to herself if she tried. She effortlessly provides fantastic harmonies with Mr Hunter, most memorably in “Say Farewell”, and her growing relationship with Jackson is superbly subtle; you can see her desperately trying to put the brakes on too late, and the scene where she skids uncontrollably into his arms was really moving. She has a lightness of touch with the domestic scenes that bring out the, albeit sparse, humour in the role. But it is in the second half that she really comes into her own. When she can’t keep her son from going down the pit or from going to war – you knew the moment that the excellent Jamie Barnard turned up with a packed suitcase there was only ever going to be one sad outcome; when she gets the letter from John with the terrible news; when she starts to weaken through ill health; and when her spirit returns to the land with John in the final scene, she is just tremendous. I reckon she had tears on her cheeks for about 40 minutes in that second half. No grown man could help but tearfully sniff along with her. You can’t stop watching her – a sensational performance.

Jill CardoThe whole cast is excellent, but I would commend to you some particularly impressive performances. Mark Stobbart as Isaac, John’s chancer of a brother, irrepressibly looks for easy ways to make a bit of cash but has a heart of gold, and when he comes back from war and his wrestling days are over I felt really sad for the character. Gary Tushaw as John’s more responsible brother Seth, gives a sterling performance of reliability and has great stage presence. Kit Orton’s Jackson is a charismatic chap who you would have no doubt would easily win over any fair lady – and he has a brilliant voice. And Jill Cardo’s May, John and Emily’s nearly grown-up daughter, gives a great performance of a girl on the verge of being a young woman, teasing and daring with her clothes, with an impish sense of humour and a big heart that could break at any minute.

What can I say? It’s an intense, almost draining experience – we slept for hours afterwards due to emotional exhaustion. The music is sensational – Mrs C hasn’t stopped singing “Oh to be a hired man” for the last four days. The performances are skilful and engrossing, and the whole production is magic. Simply brilliant, and you’ll kick yourself if you miss it.