currently in previews (opening night 24 June)
A show of two halves that needs more development, despite a talented cast
After the short-lived Made In Dagenham, which divided the critics and audiences, another British film has had the West End treatment, as the 2003 comedy Bend It Like Beckham comes to the Phoenix Theatre in musical form this summer. It’s a slightly odd choice, but the musical potential inherent in the culture clash of the plot is exciting, and I was more than a little intrigued to see how the football themes translate to the stage.
By the time we reached the interval, things were not looking great. Act I is a jumbled affair, with poorly pitched comedy that lacks real wit, too many reprises of wishy-washy musical numbers, and not enough dialogue in between. The extended dream sequence with the not-so-lookalike David Beckham lookalike left me cringing, despite the valiant efforts of an evidently talented cast. While colours filled the stage, and the spinning sets and dazzling costumes are a treat, there’s no substance under the style.
However, I can’t remember when a show last made such a transformation after the interval. If the first half is a sign of material that needs more development, Act II shows what can be achieved in the while show with more work. Howard Goodall’s score finally makes the most of the diverse elements available to create Western and bhangra mash-ups that fizz and fill the theatre with tapping toes. The extended scene flitting between the wedding and the cup final is an example of how this show could work with fluidity, warmth and sparkle.
While there are some fun dance moments, Aletta Collins’s choreography could make more of the football elements: the slow-mo and the ‘tricks’ all fall rather flat, and while ‘Girl Perfect’ has the potential to be a punchy routine, the movement lets it down a little. ‘Glorious’ has all the makings of a classic West End number, but it still lacks a bit of soul – a bit like the show as a whole, there’s promise but I don’t see this becoming a lasting classic.
This isn’t for the lack of trying by the cast. While Natalie Dew could do with a little more conviction at times, she makes for a dependable lead as football-crazy Jess, while Lauren Samuels threatens to outshine her as new best friend Jules. Preeya Kalidas is hilarious as Pinky, while Jamal Andréas makes a very impressive West End début as Tony, with the strongest vocals in the show; he is given much more material in Act II than Act I, which is perhaps one of the reasons I found it to be such an improvement. Completing the younger leads, I can forgive Jamie Campbell Bower for some awkward dancing in the finale thanks to a strong performance leading up to this.
The show could do with some judicious cuts as it currently runs a little too long. With some pruning of the cheesiness and reprises in Act I, which really does feel dragged out beyond its potential, there is the scope for Bend It Like Beckham to become, if not a long-running hit, an enjoyable night out. In its current state, it’s hard to forgive some of the glaring issues with this production.
With thanks to Official Theatre for the ticket.