“Who wants to cook aloo gobi when you can bend a ball like Beckham”
As anyone who has ever been to my parents’ annual Bonfire Night party can attest, a good aloo gobi is nothing to be sniffed at (nor my mum’s lamb saag for that matter) but when you’re a teenager, such things are far from your mind. So it is for Jesminder Bhamra – her older sister has just gotten engaged, her parents are keen for her to keep close to her Punjabi Sikh heritage but all she wants to do is play football in the park. And when she gets spotted by the captain of the local girls’ team, Jess finds herself torn between her family and following her heart’s desire.
Based on Gurinder Chadha’s enormously successful film of the same name, this musical version of Bend It Like Beckham is a ball-bouncing, cross-cultural match-up of a show. Adapted by Chadha and Paul Mayeda Berges, the story maintains its vivacious energy as Jess weaves her way through wedding prep and vibrantly staged parties with the extended family whilst tackling the rigours of life with new pal and teammate Jules in the Hounslow Harriers where her footballing prowess is soon spotted by the keen coach Joe, someone else Jules also has her eye on.
Chadha’s direction is most at home when evoking the communal life of the East African Indian diaspora through the gift of music – from bhangra routines to delicately moving folk songs, Aletta Collins’ choreography and musical staging is superbly done. And there’s clear indications too of the tension in forging a modern identity, Jess’ sister Pinky wants to do everything the ‘right’ way to honour her parents but has to keep her pre-marital dalliances with her fiancé a secret and her engagement party dance owes as much to Pineapple Studios as it does the Punjab – Preeya Kalidas here is an electric presence throughout.
Howard Goodall’s score, enhanced by co-orchestrator Kuljit Bhamra, is a beautiful thing, fusing his inimitable soaring and swooping melodies with subcontinental influences to create a beguiling mixtures, full of recurring motifs and reprises which fix themselves in the mind. And Nigel Lilley’s musical direction is sprightly and sure-footed, ensuring the cast recording (should there be one…) will be well worth the investment, not least because there’s a substantial amount of it.
The show is undoubtedly too long – sequences become repetitive, longueurs let the attention waver and the story rarely justifies the length. This is in part due to the footballing scenes being weaker, the ball skills and physicality of the female ensemble are a cracking tribute to the England World Cup quarter-finalists (so far) but the various ways in which actually kicking a ball are simulated just don’t work despite the best efforts of Natalie Dew, who makes a brilliantly empathetic leading lady as Jess and Lauren Samuels as the sparky Jules.
Scene-stealing support comes from the ever-reliable Sophie-Louise Dann, Rekha Sawhney’s voice deserves special mention, and Jamal Andréas is a hugely appealing best friend for Jess. Miriam Buether’s flashily modern design houses the show well and Katrina Lindsay’s costumes are simply gorgeous. It might not be perfect but with all of its warm-hearted intentions and (still) groundbreaking themes, Bend it like Beckham rightly ought to have audiences cheering on the terraces, well, the aisles of the Phoenix at least.