Pravesh Kumar’s Britain’s Got Bhangra is first and foremost a celebration. A celebration of life, immigrant culture and, especially, the style of Indian music known as Bhangra.
This production by Rifco Arts and the Theatre Royal Stratford East with Warwick Arts Centre is also musical theatre in its purest form. This translates to a thin story padded out by a collection of upbeat, foot-tapping numbers and ballads rounded out by an improbably daft ending and a general feel good mood that tries, and largely succeeds, in leaving the audience feeling a little better about the world than they did when they came in.
The story, told partly in Punjabi, follows the mixed fortunes of reluctant Bhangra star, Twinkle, from his humble beginnings in India where he quickly meets and marries Jussi, before leaving her to take a job in Southall, West London, promising to send for her when he has found success. At first he finds the streets are not exactly “paved with gold”, until, that is, his talent for singing is uncovered. But this is a musical, and we’re not even at the end of act one yet, so something’s bound to go wrong…
Starting in 1977, at the time of the Queen’s Jubilee, the story moves through the decades effectively, and humorously, with a number of nods to the culture of the day – Ghandi’s (and later Slumdog Millionaire’s) Oscar success, the start of Eastenders, the joining and parting of Charles and Diana and even Milli Vanilli.
As Twinkle, Surrinder Singh Parwana (Shin), admirably holds the proceedings together in an energetic and sometimes touching performance. He is aided by a talented supporting cast, particularly Sophiya Haque as Shindie, Twinkle’s duplicitous manager. Aside from the main players, many of the other actors take on multiple roles and provide great entertainment value, mixing musical and comedic skills to the audience’s great delight.
Taking place against the background of a Taj Mahal-style minaret, the main set, designed by Simon Lima Holdsworth, is cleverly comprised of a versatile row of shop fronts representing Southall Broadway. These turn out to house a whole array of secrets, including the impressive Britain’s Got Bhangra band that pumps out the tunes with great vigour. In fact such is their vigour that the lyrics are sometimes drowned out, which is a shame as Sumeet Chopra, Dougal Irvine and Bittu Denowalia (music, English and Punjabi lyrics respectively) have obviously put a lot of effort into crafting the songs.
The other technical elements are effective, with Andy Kumar in particular creating some beautiful Indian costumes, especially for the female cast members.
At around two and a half hours (plus interval) Bhangra does feel a touch long, something that is not helped by a somewhat unnecessary plotline that unfolds in act two and bears little dramatic fruit. This culminates in a muddled and rather chaotic ending that even throws in a bit of ‘deus ex machina’ for good luck.
There is no doubt thatBhangra is a musical in the purest sense of the word, meaning that while it is all done in good humour and great earnest, it is the dramatic elements that let the production down. But like all the best stage musicals, the main focus here is the music, and the highlights of this production are when the talented cast is in full Bhangra flow. The musical numbers are loud, colourful and well choreographed (by Andy Kumar). The final number in particular works to redeem any of the production’s shortcomings.
However, this is both a blessing and a curse, as while it creates a wonderfully upbeat finale, the question does arise as to whether a show entirely filled with Bhangra numbers without the distraction of a unsatisfying story could have provided an even better evening of entertainment for devotees and the uninitiated alike.