At last, my journey of discovery into the world of London theatre – and the notion of sitting in the cheap seats – begins.
My plan to review the theatre of London and analyse the truth behind the curse (or the treat?) of sitting in the cheap seats has, for a long time, been waiting in the wings. Today, with my reflections on the Phoenix Theatre’s Bend it Like Beckham, this plan makes its debut on the stage.
Join me as I discover what it really is like to view London theatre by sitting in the cheap seats.
Date of viewing: 26/01/2016
Production: Bend it Like Beckham
Seat: Upper Circle G15
How cheap!?: £10
I have to admit, before my Tuesday night excursion I knew nothing about this show or its film predecessor. My knowledge of what it is to ‘bend it’ like Beckham, or how one might go about doing so, was considerably lacking. I am delighted now to have had my football vocabulary dutifully broadened by the show – even if I doubt my own ability to replicate a Beckham-like bend myself.
In truth, there were many things that further delighted me about this show – but they did not go unaccompanied by a loftier dollop of disappointments.
My first disappointment came at the show’s very beginning when headless actors sang from a balcony far above the stage – my cheap seat was too high! Naturally my fear from then on was that many more scenes would depict the cast’s actors as headless, but fortunately most of the show’s proceedings were conducted at ground level. From this height, the action was mostly incredibly clear, as were the actors’ expressions.
In the show, best friends Jess (played by Natalie Dew) and Jules (Lauren Samuels) bond over a love of football which proves too challenging for Jess’ Indian family. The show ends with the pair as football champions, but not without a healthy dosage of sexuality/race/gender complications along the way.
“charmingly British humour”
What I liked most about the show was its ability to treat such complex and controversial themes with subtlety and gentleness. Throughout, characters are truthfully presented as struggling with counter-cultural confrontations, and this honesty is to be respected. These themes – most clearly represented by the distinction of Indian verses white-British culture – echoed struggles of reality for a twenty-first century audience in England. The show’s unravelling of the themes of gender, race and sexuality was doused suitably in a splash of humour. In fact, Bend it Like Beckham is an extremely funny show – especially for those with a British upbringing as it highlights all the things we Brits love and hate about ourselves. It presents its audience with charmingly British humour.
Charming is probably a good word to describe Bend it Like Beckham. Unfortunately, the show’s humorous charm does not provide enough to over-shadow the other often unspectacular elements. Natalie Dew’s performance of Jess was…nice. Her dramatic performance was mostly representative of the sheltered 18 year old Jess, and she was convincingly wide-eyed and naïve, but for a lead lacked vocal power and anything of an outstanding sonority. Lauren Samuels, on the other hand, (for whom I attended the show, having been very much impressed with other exposures to her powerful voice) has a lovely voice which is simply not utilised in this show – at all. Lauren’s few moments of vocal exposure allow little chance to demonstrate her technical skill.
In fairness to the show’s central characters, the composed music of Bend it Like Beckham is sadly consistently uninspired. British composer Howard Goodall provides this production with no show-stopping numbers or power-house belts and the melodies are rather unmemorable. Song titles such as ‘Girl Perfect’ and ‘UB2’ are representative of the production’s lazy musical writing and unimaginative word-setting. Exceptions to the disappointing music are present, but infrequent. Undoubtedly it is refreshing to hear authentic Indian gamak singing on a musical theatre stage and Rekha Sawhney’s delivery of this was beautiful. Bend it Like Beckham’s best song was sung by Sophie-Louise Dann who played Jules’ mum, Paula. There She Goes is a sweet yet modest song with a singable tune. Sophie-Louise performed this with a genuine care and concern for her grown-up daughter. This song was performed with a great level of sensitivity, reflective of Sophie-Louise’s humorous role throughout. It is nice to be able to attribute the show’s only other song of note to both lead girls and their mothers: ‘Tough Love’ is not overly powerful, but creatively builds to a harmonically pleasing quartet which is quite moving and sentimental.
“it is refreshing to hear authentic Indian gamak singing on a musical theatre stage”
The choreography fitted suitably with the bland music and allowed for football and athletic skill to be demonstrated – which is more than reasonable. Some visual elements were quite aesthetically inventive, like Jess and Jules’ levitating bedrooms, whilst others proved to be failed attempts: Jess’ joyful leap into the air at the end of Act One was accompanied by a poorly timed black-out.
Overall, Bend it Like Beckham is a fun musical. Not particularly creative or artistic, but fun. Others have described Bend it Like Beckham as a celebration of that which is British, and certainly, upon leaving the theatre I felt empowered to reminisce my typically British upbringing. Sadly, I left the performance pondering the truth of the old saying, ‘Britain: das land ohne musik’ (the land without music). I’m afraid I believe Bend it Like Beckham provides that saying with a one/nil score.