Hit film 'Bend It Like Beckham' takes to the stage as a musical

Sleeper hit Bend It Like Beckham takes to the stage as a musical to update the themes of race, identity and inclusiveness

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 November, 2014, 11:11pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 November, 2014, 11:11pm

It was the film that launched the careers of Keira Knightley and Parminder Nagra, while also bringing issues such as sexual identity, interracial relationships and religion to mainstream cinema audiences.

Now, 12 years after the box office success of Bend It Like Beckham, the tale of a football-infatuated London Sikh teenager who defies her parents to join a local women's team has been turned into a stage musical that will open next May.

But while the story will still be set in 2001, the coincidence of the musical's opening date next year, just weeks after Britain goes to the polls, is not lost on Gurinder Chadha, the award-winning director of the film and now the musical, which she identifies as a "state-of-the-nation piece".

"We are opening in the year of the election and there are enough people out there who will be using race as a divisive mechanism during the election process, which traditionally and historically always happens, as we know," she says.

"What we are trying to do is make a stakehold for those of us who believe we live in a brilliant nation that is all the better for being as diverse and as interesting culturally as it is, and that it isn't just one community that has created this."

The story centres on two 18-year-old girls who set out to make careers as professional footballers despite their families' best efforts to stop them. The result was a box office smash which grossed US$60 million in the US and went on to set a precedent when it became the first Western-made film to be broadcast on television in North Korea.

The film was a launch pad for Nagra, who secured a role in ER, an American television series, while Knightley became an Oscar-nominated star. Chadha, who also made the romantic musical Bride and Prejudice, says that while she has always loved the genre, she has until now resisted the suggestion that Bend It Like Beckham be given the musical treatment.

As time went on I realised how significant I thought [Bend It] had been in terms of race relations in this country … and how very little came after it

The director recalls: "I thought that I'd leave it [but as] time went on I realised how significant I thought [ Bend It] had been in terms of race relations in this country, the presence of the Asian community, and how very little came after it in the same way that celebrated who we are as a nation.

"I went to see Billy Elliot again and I was doubly moved because I loved how it crystallised a particular moment in British history and thought, 'Hold on, I might have been mistaken'."

Casting will be announced shortly for the musical, which will play at the Phoenix Theatre in London. Tickets went on sale on Friday. Original music for the show, produced by Sonia Friedman, has been written by Howard Goodall, with lyrics by Charles Hart.

Chadha says her intention is not to "regurgitate" the film onto the stage, but to grapple with the themes it dealt with - "inclusiveness and the very human warmth about who we are as a nation". Watching her son play football, Chadha also recalls an experience following one of Bend It's original pre-screenings in a cinema in Manchester, a year after the Oldham race riots.

"I thought there was going to be a lot of Indians, but actually there was a lot of English people and it was so packed they had to open two screens," she says.

"A woman came up to me after - she was about 30, blonde, and I remember she was wearing white trousers, a white blouse and stilettoes and had been crying - and she said to me, 'My God, you don't know what you have done do you?' She said, 'After what has been going on around here', referring to the Oldham riots, 'what you showed us was that everyone wants the best for their kids. It doesn't matter who you are'. And that was what the movie meant to her."

The director believes the musical could spark something of a revolution in the West End's largely white, middle-class audience.

"I think the Phoenix Theatre is going to be overrun by Asians and everyone is going to go, 'What the hell? Where was this audience?'" she says, laughing.

"Our intention is to create a new kind of musical with a different musical language. Bollywood is banned. That word is not allowed because whatever Asian influences are there, are basically Punjabi west London as far as I am concerned - those that I have grown up with and very Western musical influences.

"The intention is still to create a British musical, but it's just that as soon as you have people on stage that look like those people who you normally don't see, then those people will come and take ownership of it, along with the regular theatre-going audience."

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