Did High School Musical teach us nothing? Sport and theatre don’t mix. Sadly Bend It Like Beckham does little to disprove this theory.
At its core, the show isn’t really about football at all, but there’s still very little sport involved. That’s largely because it’s so difficult to recreate the beautiful game on a stage; instead we have aerobics style choreography to cover up for a lack of ball skills and some hilarious “effects” such as a ball being flown around the stage, or being represented by a bouncing spotlight. The sport element of the show is as authentic as the Beckham lookalike who appears in a dream sequence and clumsily hides his face from the audience.
Deep down there’s an excellent and very credible story here. Directed by Gurinder Chadha and based on her own 2002 film that helped to launch the acting career of Keira Knightley’s chin, it follows eighteen year old Jess Bhamra as she joins a women’s football team in Southall, London, against the permission of her staunchly traditional Indian parents. It pulls in multiple themes that thirteen years later still resonate: the Asian diaspora struggling to integrate into British culture, issues of multi-cultural society, the generational divide of Indian families. It’s also very easy to read a homosexual narrative into the plot, something that’s blatantly referenced throughout.
Unfortunately, the show tries to achieve too much. It’s too long, there are too many characters, too many songs and a lack of subtlety as it succumbs too easily to musical theatre cheese. For the most part, it relies on clichéd and dated stereotypes of London teenagers and Indian pensioners. If you’re expecting Bollywood spectacle, think again. At times it feels like watching a live episode of The Kumars at No. 42, the audience laughing at unfunny stereotypes – as awkward as Jamie Campbell Bowers’ wooden acting as football coach Joe. The themes may be relevant, but the plot hasn’t been updated from its 2001 setting – it's meant to be a period piece, but it already feels dated.
There’s certainly great potential for this story to be told through music and song, in particular through East-meets-West musical styles. Too often, though, the music and choreography add little to the plot beyond overstating, with far too many reprises that serve only to pad out the already lengthy three hour run-time. The show is currently still in previews, but it definitely needs a good trim.
Howard Goodall’s score fails to live up to that potential, though. A handful of traditional Indian songs are beautifully performed (the mournful pre-wedding night song in particular), but shoe-horning a Tabla drum and a Tanpura beneath Western theatre songs with the odd bit of traditional singing doesn’t cut it. There’s a distinct lack of choruses to many of the songs, whilst others overlap and splice multiple melodies together so much as to be incomprehensible. It’s as if Goodall is trying to be too clever, without delivering an actual tune. The odd moment of Bhangra does liven things up with some exciting and joyful choreography, but for the most part Goodall plays it stylistically safe.
The songs are, at least, performed well by a talented cast: Natalie Dew as the calm Jess caught between cultures; Preeya Kalidas as her bridezilla sister; and Lauren Samuels as headstrong tomboy Jules. The young cast especially are endearing, lending the show as a whole a strong likeability factor, though whether you’ll be laughing at rather than with them is up for debate.
If there’s one scene that sums up the best and worst of the show it’s the aforementioned dream sequence. As with the ballet from Oklahoma!, there’s high potential for storytelling with Jess caught between East and West, but there are too many melodies in this clash of cultures – not to mention a dancing David Beckham with a dodgy haircut. If this is meant to be Bollywood with balls it doesn’t have enough of either; instead it’s just awkwardly British.
Watch: Bend It Like Beckham runs at the Phoenix Theatre, with booking until October 2015. The show officially runs from 24th June.