When filmmaker Gurinder Chadha decided to make a stage adaptation of her super hit movie Bend It Like Beckham, one of the key aspects was getting the casting right and, in particular, the lead role of Jess.
Talented young actress Natalie Dew beat off tough competition to land the role, which was originally played by Parminder Nagra. She takes centre stage in the big-budget West End musical, which commenced its run in London last week.
The actress has gone through months of intensive preparations for the role of the young Punjabi girl determined to play football. She stars alongside a cast including Lauren Samuels, Jamie Campbell Bower, Ronni Ancona, Jamal Andréas, Preeya Kalidas, Natasha Jayetileke and Tony Jayawardena.
Eastern Eye caught up with Natalie during rehearsals to find out more about the new musical, taking on such a challenging role, learning how to play football, working with Gurinder Chadha and more.
Did you watch the Bend It Like Beckham movie when it was first released?
I did and I remember being taken aback because there was a girl who looked a bit like me as the main star in the story I was watching. I had never seen something like that before on film.
So how did you feel when you were cast in the lead role of the musical?
I had a number of emotions – shock, overwhelming excitement and a bit of fear all thrown in. It’s my first musical, so there was a huge amount of the unknown for me. But having met the creative team, I knew I was in safe hands.
How has the transition from screen to stage been?
It has been an ever-changing journey. Naturally we want to maintain a sense of what people know and love from the film, but we also want to heighten the experience of that.
So really it’s about expanding the crucial moments from the film and taking that a bit further. And what helps with that is a wonderful creative team who really are the best at what they do. Each element, from Aletta Collins in choreography and staging and Howard Goodall and Charles Hart composing and writing, to Nigel Lilley our musical director, they all work so fluidly with each other. None of them are overly precious about their own department and so the open-mindedness in the room has allowed us to keep discovering new and wonderful things on the show.
Obviously we also have Gurinder Chadha who brings the essence of the film, and someone who shows her heart towards the piece every day. And in terms of the story of the show, she keeps us on the right path.
Tell us about the character you play?
I play Jess Bhamra. Her passion is football, and she idolises David Beckham. However, she must now decide whether to pursue her dream and achieve football glory, or respect her parent’s wishes to go off and study law and leave a chance of a career in football behind.
Do you have a favourite song in the play?
It changes daily. The songs are utterly amazing. I don’t know how Howard and Charles do it. We are still in the process of rehearsing songs so I am always finding something new. There may be a new song tomorrow, which will be my favourite.
Who are you hoping the play will appeal to?
I think it will appeal to everyone and anyone. The point of the show was to make it as inclusive as we could. I would like to think there is something for everyone. As well as attracting an audience who know and love the film, it will be great to tell this story to fresh eyes.
Do you have a favourite character in the play apart from your own, of course?
That is a tough one, and it too changes a lot. I think my dad (played by Tony Jayawardena) has a great journey as a character and he plays it so well.
What is Gurinder Chadha like as a director?
Incredibly passionate. The story of the show means a huge amount to her and her emotional investment in the piece makes it easy to get on board with her ideas. Having said that, she also welcomes creativity from the company and so it really feels like we are all combining our ideas to get the best result. She has always encouraged ideas and that’s a really exciting room to work in. What’s inspiring about her is how much she cares about her own community. She has achieved so much in her career and has never let go of her roots.
How much does it help when a strong cast is assembled for a project like this?
It makes the show. The cast we have is diverse and super talented. So much of what we have achieved is by everyone having a strong skill set to work off. We fully support and help one another. I have been so grateful to have such patient and generous dancers around me. I’m not super quick at learning new moves and they have always offered help to go over steps, which is lovely. Moments like that make me feel really lucky.
Have you learned any football skills?
Yes. I had no skills to begin with, so I could only really improve. I have been training with Tanvie Hans, who is a footballer for Tottenham Hotspur Ladies and her personal coach Jonny Kumah. They helped me to get confident with a ball and to understand the mechanics of the game. It took time, but after sessions in the park crying over the fact that I couldn’t do ‘keepy uppies’, you get over yourself a bit. Going through the frustration seemed to be part of it. On a good day, I can do between 10-15 ‘keepy uppies’. I hope to keep improving as the show goes on.
How does performing on stage compare to other acting mediums?
I guess it’s heightened. In musicals it is, anyway. It’s more about not being afraid to really highlight the key moments in the piece and expanding on them more dramatically.
Who are your acting heroes?
Everyone. At work I am surrounded by great actors and I have been lucky to have worked with lots of great people in the past. I don’t really have a hero, as such. I think you constantly learn from lots of people.
Are you a football fan yourself and which is your favourite team?
Well, let’s say I have found a new love for football. I used to support Man United when I was little because our family friends did. So I can name you the early 1990s team. Aside from that, I had a huge crush on Michael Owen when I was about 10, so I fully supported him. I would love to follow a team, but am probably overthinking who I should support. I am taking the decision very seriously. (Laughs) Any suggestions?
Why do you love theatre?
There is no other feeling like it. I love having a new family on a job, and meeting people from all walks of life. I enjoy the hard work and challenge that comes from creating new work. The feeling of performing in front of an audience is second to none. It’s unpredictable, exciting and exposing.
Finally, why should we all come watch the Bend It Like Beckham musical?
I have never seen a show like it. It represents the culture and diversity we have in Britain today and celebrates it. The music mirrors this and the story itself is human. It fills me with pride and emotion and I hope it gives others a similar feeling.
Bend It Like Beckham: The Musical is running at the Phoenix Theatre in London. Log onto www.phoenixtheatrelondon.co.uk and www.benditlikebeckhamthemusical.co.uk for more information and ticket details.