Exclusive interview with Sonia Friedman & Gurinder Chadha

Bend it Like Beckham has now closed at the Phoenix Theatre. See shows at the Phoenix Theatre here.

Tomorrow marks the very first preview performance of the world premiere of Bend It Like Beckham, so we sent our reporter Hayden Thomas down to the Phoenix Theatre for an exclusive chat with the show's multi Olivier and Tony Award-winning producer Sonia Friedman, as well as BAFTA-nominated creator, writer and director Gurinder Chadha.

Read on to find out about last-minute dress rehearsals, how it all came together in the first place and whether this show can become the next big, British musical. Also, find out what it was like working with legendary football commentator John Motson and what David Beckham himself has to say about it all... 

Hayden Thomas: Gurinder and Sonia, thank you for taking the time to speak to us. So, we're almost there! The first preview of Bend It Like Beckham - The Musical is tomorrow (Friday, 15th March) - how are we all feeling? How are the nerves holding up?

Gurinder Chadha: Actually, I go from being completely exhausted to being completely exhilirated. I'm going through that stage where I'm back and forth. We're going through the final technical stuff and then we're gonna have a run-through and a dress rehearsal. I'm so excited because there are so many bits that I love, and I can't wait to share it with the public.

Sonia Friedman: I can wait because I haven't even seen a dress rehearsal yet! (Laughs) But yes, I feel very much the same. In a day and a half, we open our doors to a full house at the Phoenix Theatre, so it feels a bit surreal saying this because we haven't actually seen a full run of it yet... (Bursts into laughter)

HT: It will be alright on the night!

SF: Do you know what? It's the mystery of theatre and somehow we will get there!

GC: We did do a run the other day and a sofa got left on stage by someone...

HT: "Where's that come from?!"

GC: Exactly! But I understand that's what preview audiences love. That gives it some charm, right?

HT: Yes, that can be the appeal sometimes of live theatre. So Gurinder, I read in the Telegraph at the end of 2003 that you were considering a musical adaptation of your Bend It Like Beckham film. Has it felt like a long and winding road for you?

GC: Well, I think someone mentioned it to me at that time, but I didn't properly consider it until four or five years ago. That's when I went to see Billy Elliot again, which I absolutely loved and adored the first time I saw it. There's something about that show that crystalizes that period of time so well. The further you get away from that time period, the more it makes you think back of the miners and their struggles at that time. I know that Bend It Like Beckham was such a loved film, but I just thought maybe there was something I could do to go a bit deeper into these themes and see what it was that people loved about it. And then I met Sonia, who really started to think about it in a theatrical way and took us along that path. She introduced us to Howard Goodall and Charles Hart (the show's composer and lyricist). As soon as we all met up, it started to click and it was something very different from the film. It has the themes and moments that people appreciate from the film, but done totally in a theatrical way.

HT: I've seen a few West End shows recently which explore Indian themes and South Asian culture - 'Behind the Beautiful Forevers' at the National Theatre, 'East is East' at Trafalgar Studios, and 'Beyond Bollywood' at the London Palladium, but I heard you didn't want to market this production as an 'Indian Show.' Can you tell us a bit about that? How would you market it?

GC: Well, I think there's a big distinction between "Indian-Indian set" shows and our show. Ours is very much a British show. 'Beautiful Forevers' was set in an Indian slum and 'Beyond Bollywood' is a very different tradition to what I'm talking about here. Those belong to India and our show is very British. There is an Asian influence in it, but it's very much a British-Asian influence. Our show is more traditionally West End than it is an 'Indian Show,' if you know what I mean. It happens to have Indian influences in it, but it's set in the traditional world of West End theatre.

HT: Speaking of the traditional world of West End theatre, I grew up with the British musicals of the 1980's and 90's. It seemed like every single musical turned to gold and went global. Now Sonia, you said yourself that it's seeming more and more difficult for British musicals to have that international level of success, 'Billy Elliot' and 'Matilda' being the exceptions to that rule. What do you think of Bend It Like Beckham's potential for international appeal?

SF: Of course anything that I produce, I always hope it will have a wide reach. But all we're focusing on now is London. We're taking it step by step. You must never ever set out to assume success. You have to set out assuming you're going to do the best you can do and others agree. So, London absolutely and we'll just see what happens thereafter.

HT: Now I don't get to say this in theatre interviews very often, but let's talk about football! Obviously in a movie you can film your scenes on a real football pitch, and obviously we can't fit a football pitch onto the stage of the Phoenix Theatre, so what were the challenges for you of re-imagining the game of football on stage?

GC: What I've learned about theatre is everything is about story-telling. How can you tell your story using the tools that you have. I think that Aletta Collins(the show's choreographer) has done a marvellous job of turning football into choreographed sequences that suggest a football match through specific moves - sometimes with a ball and sometimes without. It's about using other theatrical methods. So you get the spirit of football without having to have a big pitch and players on either side kicking a ball around.

SF: And if I could follow on from that. Theatre is about the power of the imagination and as long as you can follow and care about the story, a football can be whatever you want it to be. It could be a lemon. It could be whatever we dream it up to be and you'll believe it because our character is believing it. That's at the heart of what we're talking about - it's the power of imagination and the love for our leading girl. If she believes it, we believe it.

HT: And Gurinder, you got to direct legendary football commentator John Motson in a voice-over session for the project. What was that experience like for you?

GC: Oh it was fantastic! He was part of the film. So when he came in, he was extremely friendly because he remembered when he came in to do the commentary for the film, he really wasn't very sure what was going on. He just stood there in front of a screen and spoke. He didn't really use a script or anything. And then when I met him, it was the first time since I'd seen him since the film fourteen years ago, and he came in and said: "Well, that was a blimming success, wasn't it!" He was completely made up with it. Everyone talks to him about being in the film. He was really lovely - very sweet and very warm and he was delighted to be a part of this musical production.

HT: And Sonia, obviously the musical has the 'David Beckham Factor' going for it too?

SF: Yes! He's obviously very aware of it. He's excited and he's asked me if he can bring his children. Quite rightly up until now, he hasn't been part of it. This is not what he does. He doesn't put on musicals, but he'll be coming and I'm sure the world will know when he does. David Beckham is our leading lady's hero. She idolises him and so you can't do the musical without actually drawing on that. That 'relationship' is glorious, it's gorgeous, it's beautiful, and there are a couple of moments involving Beckham, which we won't give away.

GC: It's also quite a responsibility because he is a real person. He's a footballing legend and he is a family man. He's a husband and he's a father. So I hope we've been very respectful of that. We don't want to exploit him. We've just used him in a very pure, innocent story-telling way for our protagonist.

SF: As Gurinder has said, he loved the film. When the film came out, nobody knew who he was in America. The film put him on the map - not his football, it was the film. So he does have an affection for this story and we know he's supportive of us.

GC: And everytime he does something in the papers, it always says something like: 'Mend It Like Beckham' or 'Spend It Like Beckham' or something else. So the poor fellow can't shake us off! (Laughs)

HT: Unfortunately we have to wrap things up now, so in summary, what can audiences expect from Bend It Like Beckham - The Musical?

GC: For me, an audience who comes to see Bend It Like Beckham, they should expect a great night out. If they loved the film, they will be all the better for it because it's different from the film. I hope it has all the charm and all the affection of the film, but we've built it into this show as a theatrical experience. I hope audiences go away with a full heart that is bursting with joy...

SF: And it's for everybody! It's for teenagers who are rebelling against their Mums and Dads. It's for Mums and Dads who don't want to let their kids go. It's for Grannies who just want to take their grandchildren out. It's for young people who want to hear an aspirational story about what it's like to be a teenager growing up in London and breaking away. It's about Football. It's about parents. It's about dreams. It's about hope. It's about culture. It's about everything in life that we all come up against at some point. It's a universal story... And it's British!

GC: Oh yeah! A great new British musical!

HT: Ladies, thank you so much. It really has been great talking to you both and I have all my fingers crossed for the show.

Bend It Like Beckham - The Musical begins previews on Friday 15th May at the West End's Phoenix Theatre and officially opens on 24th June. It is currently booking through to 24th October 2015.

Edited by Tom Millward