The West End has been home to a number of ‘film to musical’ successes, and also a few flops! When I told people I was going to see Bend It Like Beckham (thanks to Official Theatre) I got quite a mixed response – some thought it would be a great choice for a show and others wondered why the hell the idea was even considered. Admittedly when I left the Phoenix Theatre after seeing it I was left with similarly mixed feelings about Gurinder Chadha’s new musical.
Bend It Like Beckham follows the story of Indian girl Jess Bhamra, whose love of football leads her to join a women’s squad against the wishes of her disapproving parents. With eastern traditions meeting western society, it is a story of culture clashes and teenage emancipation.
It really is a ‘game of two halves’. I hate to say it but the first act was a little cringeworthy. A mix of uninspiring songs, a predictable dialogue and jokes falling on deaf ears made for sometimes awkward watching. Add that to a particularly uncomfortable, Billy Elliot inspired number between Jess and a (non) lookalike Beckham and I went into the interval feeling a bit deflated. I wasn’t emotionally involved in the show and as a big fan of the film I found this hugely disappointing. My interval thoughts were ‘good cast, bad material’.
But in my 20 years of theatre fandom I have never seen a turnaround quite like this one. Act two is almost a showstopper! The songs improve from the moment the curtain lifts and I really enjoyed the opening number ‘Glorious’. The wedding scene is just stunning and the mash up between eastern and western cultures works much better in this act than the first.
Overall I would have liked to have seen some improvement in the way they use footballs. I know it’s a difficult one but it worked really well in some scenes and not in others. I enjoyed the ‘slow-mo’ keepy uppys behind the curtain during ‘Glorious’ but the use of projectors and lights and the ‘Girl Perfect’ number in act one was a bit underwhelming in comparison. Maybe a few more skills workshops are needed with the girls as they didn’t look totally comfortable yet but I’m sure, as with many shows, that the ball control will come with time.
Out of a very strong cast in general I have to pick a few standout performers. I simply loved Jamal Andreas as Tony, whose voice and performance didn’t seem like that of a West End debut! Natalie Dew (Jess) and Jamie Campbell Bower (Joe) worked well together as the lead pair. I blame the poorer first act content for their lack of emotional conviction at the start. Lauren Samuels (Jules) had a gorgeous singing voice and Sophie-Louise Dann is simply a comic genius in the role of Paula.
It is clear this show has potential but I fear for it’s time in the West End. If I was judging this show on the second act alone I would be able to see a future but the first act just lets it down a little too much. If you can’t settle into a show quickly and easily the effort is too much for both typical theatre fans and theatre newcomers (whom it seems this show is attracting).
If the first half of the script could be tweaked and a few songs cut from act one it would be a huge improvement as the second act is worth the wait. But despite my views, the West End is a volatile place right now and this show could stick around for a while. Shows I have loved have disappeared in weeks and those I disliked have gone the distance. Only time will tell with this one!
Bend It Like Beckham is currently previewing at The Phoenix Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue,booking until 24th October 2015.