Preeya Kalidas was caught somewhat unawares when director Gurinder Chadha called her about workshops for the Bend It Like Beckham musical. The actor had already attended a read-through of an early script for the show, but – a few months later – Chadha was keen to get Kalidas in to sing for the musical’s composer, Howard Goodall.
“I’d just got out of the shower, and she called me up and said, ‘I forgot to bring you in for the workshop, are you available today?’” Kalidas explains. “I said I wasn’t, so she asked me if I was on Skype, and then told me she’d call me in 10 minutes.”
She adds: “So they called me on Skype and I sang for Howard and the casting director from my own living room. I had no warm-up – nothing. But, actually, it created a very relaxed environment. I didn’t feel pressurised because I was doing it from the comfort of my own home.”
Evidently she impressed, because Kalidas subsequently workshopped the show three times, over as many years. Each time, she played the character of Pinky, the sister of the musical’s protagonist, Jess. Jess dreams of becoming a footballer, but Pinky, Kalidas explains, is all about “doing what is right for her family” and getting married.
She describes Pinky, who she has taken from the workshops into the show, as a “fun-loving ball of energy”.
“Pinky is a fantastic character to play,” Kalidas beams. “In her first scene she comes on in a Juicy Couture tracksuit and every 15 seconds she says ‘Innit’, which I thoroughly enjoy.”
She jokes: “We had a whole workshop just for that.”
Kalidas’ relationship with Chadha goes back many years, to the original film of Bend It Like Beckham in 2002. She played Monica in that, and has maintained a close relationship with the director.
When Kalidas was playing the narrator in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in 2007 in the West End, she invited Chadha to come and see her.
“I had no idea she was planning the musical at that point, but she came backstage and told me she was thinking of doing a stage show of Bend It Like Beckham,” Kalidas explains. “A couple of years later I was part of a sit-down read of the script, and by that time they had brought on Sonia Friedman as a producer, as they wanted to hear how it sounded with actors speaking the parts. I have been part of the creative process from the onset, but it’s taken five years for the show to get to the stage.”
Bend It Like Beckham marks Kalidas’ third musical in the West End. Her first was the 2002 musical Bombay Dreams, produced by Andrew Lloyd Webber, with music by AR Rahman.
Kalidas knew she wanted to be part of that show from the moment she heard Lloyd Webber mention it in an interview on television a couple of years earlier.
Having unsuccessfully auditioned for Miss Saigon at the age of 17, she was looking for a role she could play in a musical. “But there was not really anything for me,” she says. “So I had told my agent to focus on getting me TV and film.”
She adds: “When I saw Andrew Lloyd Webber talking about Bombay Dreams on television, I said out loud, ‘I want to be part of that’.”
Six months later, her agent called her and told her that auditions were taking place for the show. Kalidas ended up auditioning for it – but says she completely “messed it up”.
“I sang my song but they asked me to do a monologue too,” she explains. “That was a learning curve for me, you must always be prepared. The girl who went in before me said they had not asked her to do one, so I focused more on my song. And when I did the monologue I forgot all my words.”
She continues: “David Grindrod, the casting director, was fantastic and told me to take 10 minutes and come back in. But it was stressful as you have a panel of people watching you, telling you to do your thing.”
As it happens, following her initial audition, the show was put on hold.
Kalidas asked her agent to stay on top of its progress, and went off to make the film of Bend It Like Beckham.
It was during that, while preparing to have her nails done for a scene with her character, that she overheard another actor saying the workshops for Bombay Dreams were back on again.
“I called my agent and asked her what was happening and she said, ‘I told them you weren’t available as you were filming’,” Kalidas recalls. “But she went and called the casting director and told him I was around for workshops. He then asked her if I could come in that afternoon.”
Kalidas initially felt she had to decline, because she was having her nails done for filming. But when the production team said they were able to rearrange this for the next day, she dashed off to audition for Bombay Dreams.
“I ran home and picked up a song and went to Lloyd Webber’s Covent Garden offices to sing for him,” she says. “It was terrifying. Everyone was talking about the time they had appeared in Aspects of Love, or other shows, and I thought, ‘I am so unprepared for this’. I sang Nobody Does It Better by Carly Simon and went home thinking it had been a disaster.”
Turns out, however, it hadn’t been. Because, shortly after, Sylvia Young – with whom Kalidas trained and was represented by at that time – called her with some good news. She was wanted the following Monday for workshops.
At that point, however, she had not been told who she would be playing.
“I turned up on Monday morning and walked into the room and everyone was introduced,” she recalls. “They said, this is Preeya, and she will be playing Priya, the female lead. That was the first time I knew I would be playing her in the workshops.”
She went on to develop this role with Rahman and Lloyd Webber, alongside director Steven Pimlott. A few months later she was offered the role for the West End production, which opened at the Apollo Victoria Theatre in 2002.
“It was groundbreaking,” she says. “It had never been done before – the representation of the Indian community on a mainstream stage, with beautiful music, backed by one of the biggest producers in the world of theatre.”
It is Lloyd Webber who Kalidas credits with giving her a break, although by that time she already had a string of television credits to her name.
Kalidas’ love of the performing arts began when she was three years old, when her mother enrolled her in ballet classes. Her own mother, who works for British Airways, harboured a desire herself to be a performer, and when this didn’t happen, she set her sights on helping her daughter take the path she’d always wanted to follow.
Kalidas studied ballet until she was eight, adding tap dancing to her skills base from the age of five.
At the age of 10 she joined a group in west London, where she was raised, called Song Time, a part-time school that she attended every Saturday.
Its head was the one who nurtured Kalidas’ talent, and told her parents she should be pursuing a career in showbusiness. He told them she should audition for Sylvia Young Theatre School, which she did and secured a place.
Joining the stage school was scary, however. “For a young kid, starting school is always daunting,” she says. “But on top of that, you’re around all these other kids who want to perform, so it’s quite weird. It took me a while to get settled.”
There was even a point, in her first year, that she didn’t think she wanted to stay at the school. Her dad, an accountant, came to see the school’s head teacher, and told her that Kalidas might not stay on.
“She was mortified, and went to speak to Sylvia,” Kalidas recalls. “Sylvia called me to her office and told me, ‘I hear your dad came in about you potentially leaving’. I explained that I wasn’t sure, and that I might leave to focus on my education, but Sylvia said, ‘Absolutely not, you need to stay here’. So I did and things eventually settled.”
In the event, Kalidas remained with Sylvia Young until she was 16. Bits and bobs on TV followed, with Kalidas eventually landing Bend It Like Beckham and Bombay Dreams around the same time.
She has since appeared in television series such as Mistresses, Bodies and EastEnders, playing Amira.
EastEnders was a soap she had originally auditioned for aged 17. That may not have gone her way, but BBC casting director Julia Crampsie saw her in Bombay Dreams, and always “keeps her eye on talent”, according to Kalidas. Having then seen her in Bodies and Mistresses, Crampsie turned to Kalidas when the role of Amira came about.
“It’s just goes to show, you never know who’s watching,” Kalidas says.
That said, she prefers not to know who’s watching her when she’s on stage, and doesn’t like it when Chadha tells her of the famous people who are seeing the musical just before she’s due to go on.
But, although she may not like knowing who’s watching, the audience for Bend It Like Beckham has been vital in helping to shape the show during previews. “It’s different playing the show in a rehearsal space to a theatre, with an audience,” Kalidas says. “Some things that work in a small space don’t work on stage so there have been lots of changes, which is part of the preview process, but for the better.”
She adds: “Little details, like Pinky needing more bling, come from the previews. Gurinder is fantastic with detail and passionate about making sure there is an attention to it when it comes to the cultural element of the show. That is her world. She understands it more than anyone.”
Speaking about Chadha, Kalidas describes her as an “inspiration” for being a British Asian woman who has created a film that has now been turned into a theatrical experience that “represents multicultural Britain”.
“She could easily have passed the stage show on to someone else to direct,” Kalidas says. “Particularly as theatre is a different world to film, and you don’t have the luxury of an edit suite, to make a moment what you want it. On stage, it has to happen before your eyes. Gurinder has taken full control of that and has been fantastic.”
Kalidas acknowledges, however, that new musicals are a risk, given that shows such as Made in Dagenham have closed just weeks after opening.
The performer says it’s all about “what connects with an audience”, saying: “You can never predict what will work or not. If it connects, great, if not, you tried.”
She adds: “I’ve always thought it’s a special piece and will be surprised if it doesn’t connect. But anything can happen.”