This is the one where critics who spend most of their time in the theatre show off their football knowledge. In my case, it won’t take long. In fact one of the best things about Bend It Like Beckham is that you don’t have to give a referee’s toss about the beautiful game, and you don’t need to have seen the 2002 movie.
It’s an easy surface story of kid-wants-to-do-what-its-parents-don’t and the parallels between Sikh-girl-playing-football Bend it Like Beckham and Geordie-lad-doing-ballet Billy Elliot are so direct that there’s even a standard GCSE question on their comparative stereotyping. Jesminder’s parents are as blinkered in their ‘traditional Indian family’ thinking as is Billy’s dad by miners’ solidarity and what his mates in the social club would say.
Both shows share the optimism that social progress comes with breaking free from restrictive heritage. You could argue that by equally celebrating and critiquing the British Indian family, it is quite finger-on-the-pulse of current migration and integration debate.
But mostly, Gurinder Chadha‘s production is an upbeat fusion of conventional stage musical, choral anthem and Slumdog-derived Bollywood dance which for once doesn’t feel calculated to appeal to the X-Factor market. There’s consistent plotting and an interesting musical mix which features the brave inclusion of a sentimental Punjabi wedding song. Because of the rich orchestrations, and seamless integration of Howard Goodall’s rich and eclectic score with Charles Hart’s unforced lyrics, this may be the ‘breakthough’ New British Screen-to-Stage Musical that succeeds where, despite big budgets and good writing pedigrees, Betty Blue Eyes and Made in Dagenham failed.
Natalie Dew as Jess and Lauren Samuels as the Sapphic-suspect captain of the Hounslow Harriers Jules share the acting honours and probably an Olivier nomination, but there are also outstanding contributions by Jamal Andréas as Jess’s secretly-gay confidant Tony, and most impressive of all Tony Jayawardena as Jess’s father Mr Bhamra whose beautifully-written and impeccably-rendered ballad ‘People Like Us’ encapsulates the pride, patience and resilience of a worthy man tagged with a migrant label.
Perhaps carried away on Aletta Collins’ tidal wave of Bhangra choreography, the show over-runs its advertised time by about 25 minutes: the second act needs some structural work to avoid a succession of false endings. But even if the wedding scene has all the costume, trappings and fairy lights of a pantomime finale, its exuberance is completely infectious.
That it celebrates 21st century multiculturalism too is just the cherry on the chapati.
A version of this review appears on Londonist.com
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