‘Bend It Like Beckham: The Musical': Theater Review
Gurinder Chadha directs this stage adaptation of her own breakout 2002 hit film about a soccer-mad London girl defying Punjabi Sikh tradition.
Director Gurinder Chadha's 2002 screen comedy Bend It Like Beckham, about a London teenage girl (Parminder Nagra) who wants to play soccer, much to her traditional Sikh family's displeasure, was more than just the sleeper homegrown hit film of its year: for a while, it was one of the box-office yardsticks by which all British movies were measured, along with Four Weddings and a Funeral, The Full Monty and Billy Elliot. No doubt the producers of Bend It Like Beckham: The Musical, which opened in the West End on June 24, also directed by Chadha, have high hopes this stage reboot will approximate not just the success of the movie, but also that of fellow film-to-stage transfer Billy Elliot: The Musical.
Peppy, family-friendly and packing a right-on multiculturalist, female-empowerment message, the show is already getting standing ovations and a warm press reception; it has even had a timely assist from coverage of the Women's World Cup in Canada. There's every chance it could be a hit, so long as viewers ignore its mostly underwhelming songbook, mugging performances and tired plot.
The original film did nothing but good things for the careers of then barely-known stars Keira Knightley, Jonathan Rhys Meyers and, to a lesser extent, Nagra. But it looks in retrospect almost like it may have cast too great a shadow over director Chadha (who co-wrote the script with Paul Mayeda Berges and Guljit Bindra). Though a well-liked figure in the industry, her follow-up films (Bride & Prejudice, Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging and It's a Wonderful Afterlife) have represented a series of increasing disappointments. So choosing to direct this adaptation herself looks both like a retreat to the safety of a previous success, and a brave branching out into a medium in which she hasn't worked before.
With backing from powerhouse producer Sonia Friedman, music and lyrics by, respectively, seasoned duo Howard Goodall and Charles Hart (they collaborated on The Kissing Dance and The Dreaming), and choreography by the ace Aletta Collins (Made in Dagenham, Anna Nicole), plus Chadha's commitment to the source material's core values, one would think nothing could wrong.
Alas, although the redoubtable Collins escapes with her reputation unscathed, it's as if everyone involved has brought out the worst in one another. Chadha's tendency towards simplified, archetypal characterization, on film usually held in check by naturalistic acting, is suddenly amplified on stage. The original characters in the movie weren't all that multi-dimensional to begin with, and here that crudeness seems even more glaring, with actors grinning and scowling so hard it's as if they're worried the expressions won't be readable from across the street, let alone the last row of the dress circle. Everyone seems capable of doing only one emotion at a time.
That's especially noticeable in the otherwise chirpy and clear-voiced Natalie Dew as footie-mad lead character Jess, who at one point sings of how sad she feels with a massive grin on her face. Rounding out the rest of the story's core love triangle, Lauren Samuels as teammate Jules and The Twilight Saga's Jamie Campbell Bower as their coach Joe both belt credibly, but they struggle to inject plausibility into thinly written characters. The supports are more engaging, especially Jamal Andreas as Tony, Jess' closeted gay best friend, and Preeya Kalindas as Jess' matrimony-mad big sister, Pinky.
Music is the production's weakest aspect. Hart's lyrics are occasionally sparky, with nifty rhymes that pair "being other" with "the wrath of your mother," for example. But they're seriously let down by Goodall's drab tunes, with only the anthem "Glorious" attaining any kind of post-show memorability.
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It says a lot that the most shiver-inducing moment comes from Rekha Sawney's performance of a traditional pre-wedding lament, which pays full homage to the subcontinental musical heritage that's sorely underserved elsewhere. Otherwise, for all the use of Indian-style drumming in the orchestration here and there, Goodall's score is determinedly Western-sounding, even when the Asian characters like Jess' family are singing.
Only in spots does the score evoke the East-meets-West bhangra sound of the streets, which if used more liberally would surely have broadened the show's appeal to younger viewers, particularly those who've never set foot in a West End theater before. A satisfying fusion of musical styles is finally achieved in the climactic number where the celebrations for Pinky's wedding meld together with the team's big match, an inventively choreographed set piece that sees wedding guests symbolically making up the wall that Jess must kick around to score her winning goal. But after the near three-hour slog that's been the production up to this point, it's too little too late.
Perhaps the most irksome air kick in the show is how little interest it manifestly has in the beautiful game itself, which was one of the factors that made the film so appealing in the first place.
It's understandable that the production should seek ways to get around the performers' lack of ball skills by having just one member of the ensemble perform keepy-uppy and the rest of the time using wires and spotlights to represent the sphere in flight. In fact, those are pretty effective theatrical devices. More egregious is the fact that the team is never represented on stage by more than nine members, two players short of a full side. If the show wants to spark the imagination of young women interested in soccer, that kind of inattention to detail counts as a foul.
Cast: Natalie Dew, Natasha Layetileke, Jamal Andreas, Preeya Kalidas, Tony Jayawardena, Sophie-Louise Dann, Lauren Samuels, Jamie Campbell Bower, Irvine Iqbal, Raj Bajaj, Sohm Kapila
Book: Paul Mayeda Berges, Gurinder Chadha
Music: Howard Goodall
Lyrics: Charles Hart
Director: Gurinder Chadha
Choreographer/musical staging: Aletta Collins
Set designer: Miriam Buether
Costume designer: Katrina Lindsay
Lighting designer: Neil Austin
Sound designer: Richard Brooker
Musical director: Nigel Lilley
Presented by Sonia Friedman Productions, Deepak Nayer Productions, Bend It Films, Fischer & Vaswani Productions, Tanya Link Productions & Zeilinger Productins, Lost Marbles & Two Way Split, Delman Jacobson, Doit M&E India, Reliance Entertainment