Bend it Like Beckham*** (Phoenix Theatre)

Posted: June 25, 2015 in Theatre


It seems to have become a new law of theatre that any British film earning the tag “uplifting” has to be turned into a stage musical, paying little regard to the suitability of its subject. So here we go again, this time with a show about football. Being cynical, the success of the 2002 film on which this is based may have owed more to the star power in its title than to anything on-screen (Keira Knightly was an unknown at the time), but a decent sized hit it was and Paul Mayeda Berges and Gurinder Chadha now adapt their own screenplay, with Chadha again directing. Their book gives us a show of two halves, both of which have essentially the same narrative arc – will she (Jess) honour her responsibilities to her family or will she dash off to play for her team in a vital football match? Jess is a second generation Indian immigrant who has started to become absorbed into British culture, whilst her parents are traditionalists clinging onto their own family customs. So, even if the core story is very simple, there is plenty of meat here – culture clash, generation gap, girl power, even a gay character thrown in for good measure – and, if nothing else, the show must be welcomed for stimulating diversity both on the stage and in the audience. But does it work as a musical? Well, it could be argued that it only works as a musical, because many of the scenes between songs are so lifeless that watching them feels like trudging through a swamp. Howard Goodall has a fair track record and he gives the show a bouncy score, vastly superior to that which torpedoed the recent flop film-to-musical Made in Dagenham. That said, Goodall’s music is not much better then average Eurovision Song Contest fare, catchy Brit-pop that is only memorable in the sense that it becomes jumbled in the head for days afterwards, difficult to distinguish one song from another. The exceptions are two terrific Bollywood-style numbers which bring the show to instant life. Charles Hart’s lyrics contain more simple rhymes than should be allowed on the grounds of decency, but they serve the tunes well. Natalie Dew is a real find as Jess, combining cuteness and toughness, and Lauren Samuels gives strong support as her footballing mate Jules. Tony Jayawardhena and Natasha Jayetileke play Jess’s parents for comedy whilst preserving the characters’ dignity, Jamie Campbell Bower is an eager team coach and Sophie-Louise Dann (a survivor from Made in Dagenham) provides some of the show’s funniest moments as Jules’ slightly slutty Mum. The orchestra is placed on a balcony at the rear of Miriam Buether’s not-too-inspiring set in which six revolving panels effect scene changes and a lit-up house appears to represent Jess’s family home during the course of traditional Indian festivities. The big success of the show is the choreography and staging of the musical numbers, for which Aletta Collins takes credit. From a Southall street market to an Indian wedding to a football pitch, the show becomes a feast of energy and colour once the dancing starts, climaxing in a final half-hour of irresistible exuberance. This musical may not win many trophies, but it does more than enough for it to dodge a straight red card.

Performance date: 22 June 2015

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