Can Bend It Like Beckham succeed in the West End?

Published in The Independent on May 19, 2015

The scene is Old Trafford, where a young girl – playing for Manchester United – boots the ball and scores a goal. The crowd goes wild. This was the opening dream sequence of Gurinder Chadha’s much-loved 2002 film Bend It Like Beckham, about a teenage Sikh tomboy named Jess, who defies her parents to play football.

The plucky British feel-good movie launched the career of Keira Knightley, became a worldwide hit and gave a boost to female footie too. Now it’s about to kick off as a new musical.

But how do you stage a football match? “That’s the 64 million dollar question!” laughs Chadha in response. As director, it’s a question that she’s had to, well, tackle recently, in bringing an all-new musical version of Bend It Like Beckham to the West End.

She’s got the backing of super-producer Sonia Friedman, and new lyrics and music from Charles Hart and Howard Goodall. But the film is full of the sort of training montages and tense shoot-outs you’d get in any sports movie – and most West End theatres don’t exactly resemble football stadiums.

“What no-one really wanted to see is a huge pitch with people kicking a ball about – that would be very dull. So we’ve definitely gone very theatrical with it. You’ll have to come and see it – I can’t really explain,” says Chadha. But then she hints “football, when it’s done well, is always choreographed – when you watch the World Cup, it’s like dancing.”

The film, with its blend of girl power, young love and a comic yet loving portrayal of the British Asian community, was a surprise success, and still has plenty of fans. Is a snazzy West End musical just a cynical cash-in then?

The preponderance of film-to-stage musicals in British theatre often makes for dreary programming, and they’ve not always had a smooth ride. While there are your cast-iron hits like Billy Elliot, there’s also the ghost of, well, Ghost. Or From Here to Eternity. Or Dirty Dancing.

Not that these were disasters – some enjoyed decent runs, tours and a smattering of enthusiastic reviews… but there are so many film-to-musicals adaptations that it can now be an audience turn-off, rather than on. A good new musical is hard to get right, but having already popular source material is no longer enough to guarantee a long-running hit. West End ticket prices are, after all, eye-watering – and there are only so many hen parties to go round…

So why boot Bend It Like Beckham onstage now? Actually, it’s all the fault of that pirouetting success Billy Elliot: making film-to-stage adaptations seem like a doddle since 2005.

“What I loved was the way it had crystalised a period of British history,” says Chadha on her second viewing of the musical about five years ago. “And I love the emotional levels it reaches – it’s a musical about something.”

Which is why they’re keeping Bend It Like Beckham as a period piece – a portrait of Britain in 2001. This sounds like cunningly bankable nostalgia – give your audiences the rush not only of a familiar film, but of reentering a world of early-Noughties fashions, football crushes and a fluffier form of feminism known as girl power.

I’d be the perfect target for such a trip down memory lane, being a teenager when the movie came out and an avid theatregoer now. But while my memory of Bend It Like Beckham was pretty much just “feelgood female football film”, revisiting the film was a treat.

It was funnier than I remembered, with Juliet Stevenson turning in an enjoyable turn as Jules’s mother, distraught at having a tomboy for a daughter. Jonathan Rhys Meyers is in it as the love-interest coach, looking gorgeous and not at all like Henry VIII; Parminder Nagra is a refreshingly a warm, likeable heroine as Jess. And while Knightley does still make an unlikely striker, she has a gauche youthful charm as well as showing off her waifish frame in a sports bra at every opportunity. You can see why Hollywood came calling, snapping up the English rose (with a touch of angst) for the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.

But what really still felt well-handled was the story’s cultural politics – Jess being torn between her Punjabi family’s traditions and domestic expectations, and her desire to live her own life, however unladylike, on the football pitch. Set in Southall in West London, this affectionate portrayal of multicultural Britain was key to the movie’s success.

“For Asians, it was the first time – in that mainstream way in Britain – that a window was opened to their point of view,” says Chadha. “But I think for the non-Asian audience, the film also allowed a window to be opened, and it allowed you to see the world from that perspective.” Chadha suggests that the movie was even part of a cultural wave that has helped encourage integration in the UK.

“I think Britain has changed considerably since then, and I hope the film was part of that change. Now when we talk about multiculturalism everyone knows what you’re talking about; 14 years ago it was like ‘oh you’re being PC’. Today, diversity is a given; back then, it wasn’t quite.”

The production follows the original in eschewing very starry names – Lauren Samuels steps into Knightley’s football boots, while Natalie Dew plays Jess. Sadly, Ronni Ancona backed out of playing Jules’s highly-strung mum in April, citing family reasons, but then the real ticket-shifting casting was always going to be Jamie Campbell Bower as Joe. His striking looks – he models for Burberry – and roles in Twilight and Harry Potter assure an excitable teenage fanbase. And an older one for that matter…

“We really explore further the romance, in music and songs; there are a couple of moments of that love story that are absolutely electric,” begins Chadha, before adding “part of that is the fact that Bower is absolutely gorgeous!”

The love story is just one element that the musical expands on – while the movie was mostly seen from the teenage girls’ perspectives, the stage show is able to delve into the parents’ back-stories, and explore the differences between first and second generation immigrants. Musical numbers will allow parents to share their own complicated feelings about family, tradition, identity and knowing when to let go.

And Chadha seems extremely excited about making this a proper, full-bloodied, belt-em-out spectacular. “I decided that it was only worth going on this journey if we could completely embrace this new platform. I was at great pains never to replicate the film scene-by-scene or word-by-word, but to actually completely reimagine it as a new British musical theatre piece. When I met Sonia [Freidman], that was what excited her. And, obviously, the original themes are about girl power – and there is no-one more girl powerful than Sonia in the world of West End theatre!” It’s a fair point: Friedman, whose string of hits include Jerusalem, The Book of Mormon and Legally Blonde, is very much a woman you want on your team.

Chadha was a little intimidated, however, by her other collaborators: West End veterans Hart and Goodall (the latter wrote the lyrics to The Phantom of the Opera). A new British musical is a different beast to an independent British film, and she wanted to make sure they were all on the same page. “When I said I wanted to do an updated, British Asian version of The Fiddler on the Roof, everyone said, ‘Ahhh, we get it now!'”

While Goodall’s music should provide plenty of sweeping showtunes, it also naturally reflects the British-Asian context. The original score is seriously spiced up, Goodall using Punjabi tabla rhythms in his music to bring an Indian inflection. Bhangra pioneer Kuljit Bhamra was also brought on board to help it go with a bang.

The film has a dual climax of a competitive football match and a whirling, colourful, loud Indian wedding. I’m not even going to attempt to winkle out of her how they manage to cut between the two, but presumably the big showstopping Punjabi wedding party makes it on stage? “What do you think?” asks Chadha before giving a delighted belly laugh. “Oh yes. Oh yes!”

‘Bend It Like Beckham’ is at the Phoenix Theatre, London, booking until 24 October;

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