For a friend, with thanks

 

My friend Bill died this morning. We’d never met face-to-face, but that doesn’t matter.

It’s a curious quirk of the modern world that it’s become possible for us “meet” people with similar interests through our computers, even across distances of thousands of miles. Bill and I first encountered each other on Usenet; I’m not precisely sure when, but it was more than fifteen years ago. I’m not precisely sure, either, why we started emailing each other – it possibly had to do with a shared aversion to the vocal stylings of Bernadette Peters – but I’m very glad we did.  He loved all forms of theatre, and particularly musicals, and so do I. We’re from different countries, but shared similar politics. We told each other jokes, shared photographs, made fun of bad grammar, talked about theatre and books and films and television and comedy. I introduced him to British comedian Victoria Wood, and he prodded me to start watching ‘Arrested Development’. I encouraged him to check out the Pet Shop Boys, he convinced me to get hold of a copy of Galt MacDermot’s musicalisation of ‘The Human Comedy’. Via Usenet, then via email, then via Facebook and (less often) Twitter, we began to make each other laugh, and we never really stopped. The fact that we’d never met was irrelevant; gradually, we became good friends.

I’m told he didn’t want a fuss, and he didn’t want people to mourn; since we never met “properly”, there’s a great deal, I’m sure, that we didn’t know about each other. Neither of us was (is) inclined to blurt every detail of our lives online – but still, we shared a great deal. The last few years were not kind to him; when he talked about his health, he did so with unfailing good humour, even though I know a lot of what he had to go through was difficult and painful and very unpleasant. I know, too, that he wasn’t done. There were a lot of things he still wanted to do, with moving back to Michigan, his home state, right at the top of the list, but sometimes life is incredibly unfair.

And, of course, the thing about friends is that we think, or we hope, that they will be around forever, so we don’t always thank them when we have the chance. I know Bill was grateful for his friends, both those he had met and those who, like me, he knew only via correspondance. I’m grateful too – for the depth and breadth of his knowledge, for his keen intelligence, for his kindness, for his incredibly finely-tuned bullshit detector, and above all for his spectacular sense of humour. Bill has made me laugh – consistently and often loudly, between several times a week and several times a day – for at least the last fifteen years. I’m careful, usually, to maintain some distance between my online life and my real life, but Bill was an important part of both, even though we lived thousands of miles apart. I can’t let him leave without saying thank-you.

 

 

 

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Bend it like Beckham… or, how the hell are you going to make a musical out of THAT?

 

Bend it

Answer: surprisingly well, as it turns out – even if, like me, you couldn’t be less interested in football.

  • The film is extremely charming; this adaptation – like the film, driven by Gurinder Chadha, who wrote and directed the film and co-writes and directs the musical – stays relatively close to the source material, but finds a way to translate it into something theatrical, rather than simply dumping songs into the screenplay and putting it on a stage.
  • It’s much more a dance show than you might expect. Aletta Collins’s choreography finds a convincing theatrical language for the football sequences, and (in the second act) masterfully intertwines the football with a Sikh wedding dance. The movement is spectacular and often thrilling, although there is very little traditional musical theatre choreography.
  • Howard Goodall’s music is probably his best theatre score since ‘The Hired Man’. Along with his co-orchestrator, Kuljit Bhamra, he does a very clever job of blending English and Indian musical influences into a coherent theatrical language. The score is a beguiling mixture of Britain and Bhangra, and there’s even a 500-year-old traditional Punjabi wedding song thrown in halfway through the second act. It works, and it’s not quite like anything else you’ve heard in a musical.
  • Having said that, the ensemble sequences tend to be better than the solo numbers, a couple of which are, frankly, a bit wet.
  • The opening number – ‘UB2’, the postal area in which most of the show is set – is a real earworm. You’ll be humming it for days after you hear it.
  • Charles Hart’s conversational lyrics generally work well, although occasionally the appropriate language for these characters eludes him (an 18-year-old in 2001 simply would not talk about remembering something for “all my days”). ‘People Like Us’, in which a British-Indian father describes the casual racism he’s encountered throughout his life in the UK, is very moving indeed.
  • As Jess, the 18-year-old Sikh would-be footballer, Natalie Dew is absolutely charming, and she makes you forget Parminda Nagra’s performance in the film.
  • As Jess’s marriage-obsessed sister Pinky (the Archie Panjabi role in the film), Preeya Kalidas is simply brilliant. She’s the best singer in the cast, her comic timing is perfect, and she manages to find the warmth in a role that could very easily turn into a rather sour caricature.
  • Lovely work, too, from Lauren Samuels as Jules, Jess’s friend/rival on the football team, from Sophie-Louise Dann as Jules’s mother Paula (whose quietly sad Act Two song ‘There She Goes’ is the best of the score’s solo numbers), and from Jamal Andréas as Jess’s friend Tony.
  • You can see the ending coming a mile away, even more so than you could in the film, and it doesn’t matter at all.
  • Don’t come expecting a big spectacle along the lines of a ‘Miss Saigon’ or a ‘Phantom’, though. The set is effective, but relatively simple (I think the last time I saw periaktoids was in a regrettable mid-90s UK tour of ‘A Chorus Line’ in which the late Adam Faith was miscast as Zach). Chadha’s staging is admirably fluid, but it isn’t flashy.
  • While it isn’t flashy, though, it is great fun, and you might even have a lump in your throat by the final scene.
  • The souvenir stand in the theatre is asking £16 for a copy of the (terrific) cast recording. That’s just taking the piss.

Overall? It’s worth seeing. Yes, it could probably stand to lose about ten minutes, and yes, the second act is better than the first, but Chadha and her collaborators have taken a film that looked like a very unlikely prospect for adaptation to the musical stage and turned it into an absolutely irresistible stage show. It works beautifully, it’s very entertaining indeed, and it’s not quite like any other musical you’ll have seen.

If you want to see it, though, I wouldn’t hang around. It has a large cast, it’s in a small theatre, and big discounts are available, which means it isn’t selling especially well. It deserves to be a bigger hit, but it isn’t going to be around forever.