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Bend It Like Beckham

Scene from Bend It Like Beckham at the Phoenix Theatre, London. Photo: Ellie Kurttz Bend It Like Beckham has been praised on the Bechdel Theatre Twitter account for passing the Bechdel test. Photo: Ellie Kurttz
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Just as no one bends a football quite like David Beckham – whose last-minute free kick against Greece in a 2001 game famously secured England a place at the 2002 World Cup finals – so no British-originated new show bends the musical in such a vivaciously fresh and welcome new direction as Bend It Like Beckham.

Like Once, its equally groundbreaking and warm-hearted predecessor at the Phoenix, it is based on a low-budget film from the first decade of the century that became a sleeper hit. But if Once, transposed to the stage, remained a deliberately low-key, ruminative but swooningly lovely piece about unrequited love, Bend It Like Beckham is a much louder explosion of colour, community and creativity, shot through with exhilarating energy and genuine heart.

It’s a joyous, gorgeous portrait of the predominantly Asian west London community of Southall, beautifully introduced in the show’s opening number UB2. But the area is more than a postcode and the show is more than a postcard from it. Instead, it is about the cultural differences and assimilations happening every day in the melting pot of modern-day London. We follow a young Asian teenager, Jesminder (referred to by everyone but her parents as Jess), pursuing a seemingly impossible dream to play football and earn a scholarship to an American university to do so.

In a sense, it is the Billy Elliot story rewritten, swapping ballet for football, and providing just as keen a movement motif for choreographer Aletta Collins in which to ground the show so fluidly. (The production also pays a conscious homage to Billy Elliot in its closing moments.)

Just as the stage Billy Elliot was directed by Stephen Daldry and scripted by Lee Hall, who fulfilled the same duties on the earlier film, here the film’s director Gurinder Chadha and her co-writer Paul Mayeda Berges are again at the helm. So she knows the territory intimately, and maintains its heartfelt warmth throughout.

But an important extra dimension is also provided. Instead of a jukebox collection of pop hits and Asian themes that underscored the film, the show is exhilaratingly set to a new score by composer Howard Goodall and lyricist Charles Hart. West End success has mysteriously eluded Goodall, to my mind easily the best British theatre composer we have today, though his three top shows The Hired Man, Love Story and The Dreaming are regularly produced beyond London. Here, however, he moves into a new and far more commercial dimension with a series of instantly memorable pop tunes folded within an Asian-influenced carpet of sound and his own signature fusion of competing thematic lines.

It is, to borrow the title of the show’s second-act opener, glorious. So is the vast 30-plus cast, among whom come particularly strong contributions from Nathalie Dew as Jess, Lauren Samuels as her feisty team-mate Jules, Preeya Kalidas as her glamorous sister Pinky, Tony Jawardena as her dad Mr Bharma, Jamal Andreas as loyal friend Tony and a scene-stealing comic turn from Sophie-Louise Dann as Jules’ mother.

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Contemporary London-set show is a pulsating joy that at last provides a homegrown, original musical hit for the West End
Mark Shenton
Mark Shenton is a theatre critic. He was a regular columnist and associate editor of The Stage until 2019.