It’s a formidable line-up, but as the sadly missed (well, by me anyway) Made in Dagenham proved, adapting popular films into stage musicals doesn’t always grab the public’s imagination — although as Billy Elliot continues to prove, it can be done with enormous success.
The show tells the story of Jess (Natalie Dew), a teenage Indian girl living in Southall, who is obsessed with football and in particular the Manchester United star of the title. When she is befriended by Jules (Lauren Samuels), a player with a local ladies team, Jess finally gets to fulfill here dream of being part of a real squad that brings with it the chance to play her beautiful game, camaraderie and the possibility of attracting the attention of a scout from America, where the women’s game is very lucrative.
But all this comes at a price for Jess, whose ambitions don’t match those of her parents, who want her to continue studying and eventually find a husband like her older sister Pinky.
And, apart from a romantic subplot involving the team coach (Jamie Campbell Bower), that’s about it. It’s a familiar story of a teenager not seeing eye to eye with their parents that’s been told a thousand times before, but is given extra heft by a the accompanying idea of the cultural values of immigrant adults not matching those of children who have been born in the UK and who sit more comfortably with the western way of life.
At a running time of 2 hours 20 minutes, this story is stretched quite thin and even by the intermission the point about teenage/parental angst had been well and truly made, with one rather left wondering where the plot could go.
Also, the creative team never completely overcomes the problem of bringing sport to the stage. Aletta Collins’ choreography generally works well, but
some of the effects used as a substitute for real ball skills don’t totally convince and feel a bit clumsy
Those reservations aside, however, Bend It Like Beckham has much to recommend it. It’s colourful and lively with an often very funny script, while Howard Goodall and Charles Hart have produced a memorable score with some infectious melodies and witty lyrics that is a clever blend of traditional musical theatre and Bhangra rhythms. And it’s a show blessed with some super performances: Natalie Dew as Jess is instantly likeable; Lauren Samuels is terrific as her feisty best friend and team mate Jules. And both ladies sing like a dream. In addition, there are delightful comic turns from Tony Jayawardena as Jess’ father and Sophie-Louise Dann as Jules’ mother.
It’s takes a little while to get going and the second act is quite a bit stronger than the first and it’s here that Goodall and Hart’s score really shines because the second half opens with two or three killer songs including the anthemic Glorious.
Despite the strength of the songs, there is still a lack of momentum. I did feel that a running time of 15 -20 minutes less would have resulted in a tighter production and we wouldn’t have been left with the feeling that themes were being repeated and that songs, however catchy or emotional, were being used to give each performer their moment in the spotlight
In the end though Bend It Like Beckham scores on a combination of sheer charm, exuberance, a great score and a very talented cast.