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A CurtainUp London Review
Bend It Like Beckham
At one level, this is about the first generation of British Asian children who are looking for an identity which can incorporate both their Asian family roots and expectations and the Western context of their education and social influences. Set in Southall, a largely Indian suburb of West London near the airport at Heathrow, we meet Jasminder or Jess (Natalie Dew) who longs to play football and has a crush on England's most handsome footballer David Beckham.
Jess's Sikh parents wish she would spend more time in a sari than in football kit and her father Mr Bhamra (Tony Jayawardena) has long nursed an ambition to make it onto an English cricket team. He found that career closed to him which he expresses in the song, "People Like Us". I find this lack of ambition for his children not something I associate with the Sikh families I have met. Maybe the opinion football is not for girls is realistic but which parent would oppose a scholarship to an American university?
Jess's elder sister Pinky (Preeya Kalidas) is getting engaged to Teetu (Raj Bajaj) whose parents are rather snooty and look down on the Bhamras. Jess plays football in the local park with her friend Tony (Jamal Andreas) who is also Asian but a closet gay man. A white girl, Jules (Lauren Samuels) recognizes Jess's footballing skills and introduces her to her women's team, the Harriers and their handsome coach, Joe (Jamie Campbell Bower). Jules has in turn problems with her mother Paula (Sophie-Louise Dann) who thinks she must be a Lesbian.
So we have a plot with ethnicity, sexuality and gender defined sport to challenge usually held stereotypes. Howard Goodall has written the tunes which are pleasing, if not immediately memorable. Natalie Dew has a lovely singing voice and gives us a star performance. Her opening number in both acts, "Glorious" is exactly that. Aletta Collins' choreography has plenty of refreshing female football squad moves interpreted as dance as well as the Asian influenced dances for the older Asian generation and Pinky's younger friends Bollywood dance, that is Asian influenced but considerably more racy!
Jamie Campbell Bower is the major love interest and he can sing as well. His role is to dress up in a suit and plead with Jess's parents that she might be allowed to play in the team. Act One closes with a novel fantasy sequence featuring a Beckham look alike (uncredited but may be Daniel Bolton). I liked Sophie-Louise Dann's song about difficult daughters, "There She Goes".
A scene for the Harriers team in Germany sees a win and a celebratory night out for them all in high heels and spangly dresses. Jess has too much to drink but Joe comes to the rescue.
Miriam Buether's set recreates the shops of Southall market and the arrival and departures lounge at the airport. The opening football scenes have a screen drop of squared netting like the goal.
The musical came into its own for me when its Asian roots were given full rein in Pinky's wedding to Teetu rather than the previous aunties dance interpretation which was played for comedy. "Heer" the love song and "Sadaa Chardhdi Kalaa" sung at the marriage are brilliantly evocative songs. Jess manages to sneak off to the second half of the crucial match being watched by an American coach and later the whole wedding party seem to invade the pitch.
Bend It Like Beckham is a musical fusion of East and West but too often the ball hits the goal post of easy conviviality rather than tackling more serious issues and scoring.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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