Admittedly, seasoned composer Howard Goodall’s original melodies and Charles Hart’s lyrics border on the insipid: the big football theme song croons “Good girl, good girl, girl perfect”, as though they’re praising dribbling pups not footballers. But by the time they’ve been souped up by Bhangra pioneer Kuljit Bhamra’s orchestration it hardly matters. The opening number UB2 shows Made in Dagenham how it’s done: where the latter musical could only cough up lyrical hairball “Come get your cat spayed in Dagenham” to set the scene, UB2 finds all of Southall’s postcode-specific charms and spins them into an opener that sets up the cultural-clashing, intergenerational fun that’s to come.
Chadha’s loyalties are split equally between the hair-flicking, tracksuited younger generation and the bemused parents they run rings around — literally, in teenage tomboy Jess’s case, as she secretly joins the Hounslow Harriers after being scouted in the park. Her mother wants her to be marriageable and respectable, while her father’s bitter experience of being laughed out of white-run cricket clubs taught him that “You can only do what white people let you do.” But they’re no dinosaurs, in a script that looks beyond hackneyed culture class dynamics: Jess’s footballing friend and rival Jules struggles with her mother too (a brilliantly funny Sophie-Louise Dann), who warns her to lay off the exercise because “You’ll damage your girly bits!” and is obsessed with the idea she’ll become lesbian by osmosis.
Jules and Jess’s closeness has made for fevered forum speculation that Chadha originally intended the film to be a love story between them, not a drama as they half-heartedly compete for their male coach’s affections. But its ghost of homoeroticism is soured by homophobia from their friends and parents alike. This retelling straightens out the film’s crunchier moments — including the scene where Jess is humiliatingly and wrongly “outed” before her sister’s wedding — but the creative slurs on both women’s sexuality (“lesbo Jessbo”) stay in, sticking out like sore toes in a warm-hearted depiction of a sport that’s rather more accepting of female non-conformity.
But part of the musical’s creative strategy is to put contradictory ideas and styles and themes side by side on stage and make them mesh. Gurinder Chadha’s second act showstopper juxtaposes Jess’s sister’s wedding, gorgeous with sequins and canopies, and a synchronised football match, ducking and dodging round its swirling skirts. Natalie Dew’s Jess is astounding, with the vocal power to slice the unfolding chaos alongside her soulful voiced stage sister Preeya Kalidas, as well as the gawky charisma to keep us with her through her single-minded obsession with her rather less beautiful game.
Miriam Buether’s overwrought design struggles with this aesthetic mash-up, managing to be cumbersome without being evocative. And I might avoid football with the energy Jess spends fleeing saris, but still didn’t find the slo-mo ball on a string footwork any more convincing then her teammates’ efforts to get her dolled up for a wedding.
But smoothed out by Rekha Sawhney’s shimmering traditional song and Aletta Collins’s ingenious staging, it all just about works. Recent attempts at the new Brit musical have been a little dour, a little restrained – from Lloyd Webber’s elegant but faintly constipated Christine Keeler to an over furnished East is East to Betty Blue Eyes blinking on a charming stage that looked dusty before its time. But Bend it like Beckham’s infusion of Indian culture becomes its life blood, giving the field-flat tale of a girl earning a football scholarship a scent of pure magic. It bends the rules, shoots, and scores.