Bend It Like Beckham

Theatre, West End
Recommended
4 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

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All the feelgood factor of an England win

Like the England men's team at their very best, ‘Bend It Like Beckham’ – the West End’s latest musical adaptation of a hit Britflick – is about 50 percent nervously wondering where this is all going, and 50 percent pure euphoria. And that’ll do me.

Moans first: it starts slowly, and the songs are so-so. Composer Howard Goodall is revered in musical nerd circles for his skill and subtlety, but the man doesn’t do catchy. Though there are some beautiful Asiatic flourishes, Goodall’s meandering ditties set the tone for a first half content to sit back and kick the story of 18-year-old, football-mad west London Sikh Jess (Natalie Dew) around the pitch.

But despite a few early jitters, writer-director Gurinder Chadha (who also created the smash film) plays a blinder. Even when it feels like Jess’s fairytale rise through the ranks of local women’s team the Hounslow Harriers is taking a while to get going, ‘Bend It Like Beckham’ is relentlessly likeable. That comes down to the loving attention Chadha and designer Miriam Buether have lavished on their Southall. From the rows of Indian shops to the garish fairy lights and giant picture of Guru Nanak that adorn Jess’s house, you can practically smell it. Its shabby streets teem with all creeds and colours, good-naturedly bickering away: ‘Bend It Like Beckham’ is a fond celebration of multicultural Britain that feels quietly radical after an election where immigration came in for so much stick (and it’s refreshing to see a West End musical that isn’t just about white folk).

The woman of the match, though, is Aletta Collins and her truly sensational choreography: gloriously over-extended dance sequences that nod to the spirit of Bollywood without actually pastiching it. The best is the audacious climactic scene in which she stages a football match and a wedding simultaneously and totally gets away with it. Back of the net!

Ultimately, ‘Bend It Like Beckham’ is about what most musicals are about: friendship, following your dreams and standing up for yourself. In the second half the stakes and the spectacle are raised high enough that you become totally absorbed in the struggles of the adorably hangdog Dew, as she nutmegs her disapproving parents and dribbles through a fraught love triangle with BFF Jules (Lauren Samuels) and dishy coach Joe (Jamie Campbell Bower) to finally achieve her dreams.

So yes, I have some doubts about the fundamentals of ‘Bend It Like Beckham’: the first half needs a trim, and it could do with better songs. But you wouldn’t leave a 2-0 takedown of Germany unhappy just because there were no goals before half-time, and you can’t leave this musical without feeling everyone’s a winner.

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