REVIEW: Mrs. Henderson Presents & Bend It Like Beckham - Original London Cast recordings

Recording CoverAmid the ongoing onslaught of musicals based on recent-ish films, Bend It Like Beckham stands out, if only because you could be forgiven for wondering how well any film about football could be adapted for the musical stage. Mrs. Henderson Presents, on the other hand, would seem like a sure bet as a stage musical: it mostly takes place in a theatre, it’s full of chorus girls, and there are two larger-than-life, somewhat eccentric star roles at the centre of the plot. The musical version of Bend It Like Beckham just closed in the West End, while Mrs. Henderson Presents just opened, and listening to their respective cast recordings back-to-back is an interesting experience. In the theatre, even the surest bets aren’t always as surefire as they seem.

align=leftBoth shows have unusually close musical ties with the films they’re based on. Mrs. Henderson Presents’s music is by George Fenton and Simon Chamberlain, respectively the composer and musical director of the film; Bend It Like Beckham is co-written and directed by Gurinder Chadha, who co-wrote, directed, and co-produced the film. And both shows, in their way, are uncompromisingly British.

That, though, may be where the similarities end. Mrs. Henderson Presents, for the most part, sounds like an amiable throwback: the score is constructed like a post-1940s musical, with every number carefully integrated into the plot – no semi-irrelevant five-minute tap numbers here, thank you very much – but for much of the time Fenton and Chamberlain’s music rather self-consciously sounds like it comes from the Best New Musical of 1938. In the score’s best moments, that’s no bad thing – “Anything But Young” is absolutely charming, and Ian Bartholomew and Tracie Bennett are clearly having a great time singing it – but the best moments, unfortunately, are few and far between.

It isn’t that any of it is bad, per se. It’s just difficult, without having seen the show, to discern any reason why this material needed to be made into a musical, beyond that it could be. The actors work hard, and they’re all terrific, although Bennett’s Rich Old Lady character voice occasionally has her sounding disconcertingly like George from Rainbow, but despite their best efforts, too often this score seems to lack a pulse. Don Black’s doggedly-rhyming lyrics don’t help; the comedy material is never as funny as it needs to be, and the score is often frustratingly predictable, to the point where a song called ‘Perfect Dream’ is immediately followed by another called ‘Living in a Dream World’. Even in moments of high drama, you can see the next rhyme coming two beats before Black gets there; when Mrs. Henderson sings “I've heard enough/Don't speak to me like that/You're acting like/A pompous bureaucrat…”, there’s not much you can do but roll your eyes. The big take-away tune – an eleven o’clock number called “If Mountains Were Easy To Climb”, which is sung to the hilt by Bennett and the wonderful Emma Williams – is simply inert, although Williams and Bennett give it everything they’ve got. It’s perfectly pleasant, albeit predictable; all that’s missing is any sense of why the moment needed to be sung.

Bend It Like Beckham’s cast recording, on the other hand, plays like the flip side of the coin. It isn’t perfect either, but the album – recorded live in the theatre, although you only hear applause after the finale – has a vibrancy that leaps through the speakers. Howard Goodall’s music, helped by clever east-meets-west orchestrations by Goodall and Bhangra maestro Kuljit Bhamra, is fresh, distinctive, and often insistently catchy, and possibly his best theatre score since The Hired Man. The score is a beguiling mixture of Britain and Bhangra, and there’s even a 500-year-old traditional Punjabi wedding song (“Heer”) thrown in halfway through the second act. It works, and it isn’t quite like anything else you’ve heard in a musical.

Again, there’s a wonderful cast; this time, they have material that’s actually worthy of them. Natalie Dew thoroughly deserves her Olivier nomination for her performance as Jess, the would-be footballer whose sporting ambitions cause tension between her and her conservative Sikh parents; she’s terrific, and she has a lovely, natural singing voice. There’s wonderful work from the rest of the cast too, but especially from Preeya Kalidas as Jess’s marriage-obsessed sister Pinky, Lauren Samuels as Jules, Jess’s friend/rival on the football team, and 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. For me, the highlight is ‘Glorious’, the yearning duet between Jess and Jules that opens the second act, and ‘UB2’, the infuriatingly catchy opening number, but this is a thoroughly entertaining recording of a thoroughly entertaining show. It even won me over, and I couldn’t be less interested in football.

Is it perfect? Not quite. Some of the extended musical sequences make less sense on record when they’re divorced from Aletta Collins’s choreography, but the music is exuberant enough that it doesn’t really matter if you can’t quite keep track of what’s happening. And Charles Hart’s carefully conversational lyrics occasionally throw in a phrase that sits uncomfortably in the mouths of the show’s teenage protagonists – an 18-year-old in (far) west London in 2001 wouldn’t talk (OK, sing) about remembering something “for all my days”. These are minor quibbles, though. This is a marvellous score which convincingly explores a slice of life that hasn’t been portrayed before in a West End musical, and the cast recording more than does it justice.


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