Fiercely loyal to the Brit-flick of the same name, the Phoenix’s newest show, Bend It Like Beckham, is an upbeat musical that deals with issues as diverse as racial inequality, feminism, sexuality, changing attitudes in society and the culture clash between traditional Indian upbringings and westernised lifestyles.
If you’ve seen the film, you’ll know the story already. Jess Bhamra is a British-Indian girl with a real talent for football and an obsession with David Beckham – she’s befriended by white British girl Jules, who convinces her to join an all-girls football team, led by male coach Joe. Jess is forced to lie to her traditional parents, who would disapprove of her hobby, believing a woman’s priority is to perfect her dal and saag-aloo. Her ambitions are further hampered when the traditional marriage of her older sister, Pinky, falls on the same day as her team’s cup final draw, forcing Jess to make a decision between her loyalty to her family and her loyalty to the Hounslow Harriers.
There’s a lot to like about Beckham on stage. The script, for one, is electric, full of pithy one-liners and laugh-out-loud gags. While much of the humour is steeped in stereotypes – the kind we’ve grown accustomed to thanks to the likes of Goodness Gracious Me and The Kumars at No.42 – it still works here, even when it’s predictable. Likewise, the staging is impressive and original, switching between locations as diverse as training grounds, living rooms, locker rooms and airport lounges with ease. There’s some stunning choreography, too – the scene where Jess’ football team are getting ready for a night on the tiles is a particular highlight.
Perhaps what’s most impressive of all, though, is the score. These are brave songs. And while there’s no real standout numbers you’ll be singing into the night after the show’s final curtain, the mix of wholly original melodic pop tunes and traditional Bhangra set pieces makes for a wonderful mash-up.
The show is certainly at its most lively when it fully embraces its Asian influences. Numbers such as Sadaa Charhdi Kalaa are real highlights, and it was clear the audience would’ve enjoyed more of this cultural exposure, given the choice. Sadly, much of the football-focused segments don’t work as well – the marriage between musical theatre and the beautiful game was always going to be an odd one. The show tackles these, by and large, by turning matches and training sessions into cleverly choreographed routines of ballet-style moves and slow-mo devices. It’s a neat trick, but still feels like it needs more polish and finesse.
That said, none of the problems facing this production are anything a new musical wouldn’t expect – and, if it’s given the chance to breath and respond to the reactions of its audience, it’s nothing that can’t be fixed.
Ultimately, Bend It Like Beckham deserves to be seen for many reasons. There are some star-turns here from the cast well worth a look. Of course the leads, Natalie Drew as Jess, Lauren Samuels as Jules and Jamie Campbell Bower as Joe, are all excellent, but it’s Jamal Andréas as Tony and Sophie-Louise Dann as Paula who really steal the show. Beyond this though, BILB should be celebrated for it’s courage for thrusting the themes it’s dealing with into mainstream theatre, and, hopefully when given a chance, this fledgling musical can thrive in its new home.
Bend It Like Beckham is now showing at the Phoenix Theatre. Book now at Ticketmaster.co.uk.