Football is suddenly all the rage in London theatre, with a serious, searching Patrick Marber play The Red Lion at the National and now the most joyous new West End musical for years in Bend it Like Beckham. Based on the 2002 film of the same name, but vibrantly given its own distinctive stage language and brand-new musical score, it is a warm-hearted and gorgeous giant hug of a show, innit.
That final bit of vocal punctuation is, of course, regularly heard throughout the show — the characters speak their own brand of London Asian patois, but the joy of Gurinder Chadha's production — reprising directorial duties that she also performed on the film — is that it is always feels utterly authentic.
Here's a story told with love and honesty about an Asian teenager (played with affecting gaucheness yet grace by Natalie Dew), growing up in West London's Southall near Heathrow Airport, breaking with family tradition and expectations to pursue her own dream to play football and emulate her personal hero David Beckham (who even makes a couple of personal appearances in the show, albeit impersonated; I don't think even an expensive West End budget could stretch to bringing him in personally).
The show may be a bit like Billy Elliot re-written — the British film made two years earlier than this one was, and also of course brought to the musical theatre stage — with football replacing ballet as the dream that allows a young person to escape their cultural moorings. But it is also something unique of its own, anchored in a stunningly summonsed explosion of colour and movement that brings the celebratory pizzaz of an Asian wedding to the stage as the young Jess's ambitions are set against the more limited ones of her older sister simply to get married.
Not that the sister is a walk-over either — as punchily and sassily played by Preeya Kalidas, she's got a streak of determination of her own. What's so beautiful about the show is that every single character is properly motivated and well-drawn, with further lovely portraits from Tony Jayawardena and Natasha Jayetileke as the girls' parents, Lauren Samuels as Jess's footballing friend Jules and Sophie-Louise Dann as her mother, mistaking her daughter's friendship with Jess for something more, and Jamal Andreas as Jess's friend Tony, who has a secret of his own.
The storytelling is superb thanks to the witty script and fluent staging, with exhilarating choreography by Aletta Collins and clever sets by Miriam Buether that effortlessly change locations.
But above all it is full of surging, instantly memorable melodies that exhibit composer Howard Goodall's trademark affinity for breathtaking choral work, but is also infused with Asian and popular music references that take it into a different league. I've long regarded Goodall as our best contemporary British theatrical composer, bar none, for work on shows that have stretched from The Hired Man over thirty years ago to more recent work like Love Story, but popular theatrical success has eluded him (he's better known for his classical and television theme tune work). But this show should finally give him the hit he deserves and the British musical needs.
The show is full of love and emotion, and I'm more than a little bit in love with it, too.
"A strong female cast, clever design and eclectic score make for a successful screen-to-stage transfer – but Gurinder Chadha still sidesteps the big issues."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"The show aims to entertain, not point-score, though; it’s about feeling the value, not just of football, but of different approaches to life and even sex, on the pulse."
Dominic Cavendish for The Telegraph
"Natalie Dew is wonderfully winning and pure-voiced as Jess, the Southall teenager caught between her desire to excel at soccer and the expectations of her tradition-bound Sikh family."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"Back of the net, then? Not quite. The show has flaws — it starts sluggishly and is too long. Some of the attempts to convey the wonder of kicking a football with Beckham’s particular finesse are clumsy."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard