Bhangra Nation at Birmingham Rep review – a firecracker of energy and enthusiasm

The UK premiere musical runs until 16 March

Jena Pandya (as Mary) and Siobhan Athwal (as Sunita) in a scene from Bhangra Nation at Birmingham Rep
Jena Pandya and Siobhan Athwal in Bhangra Nation, © Craig Sugden

Bhangra Nation bursts onto the stage with an energetic and colourful dance routine which immediately ignites the audience. From the opening scenes, the show – currently staging its UK premiere at Birmingham Rep – is lively, fun and exhilarating.

The premise is simple – when an American college bhangra team wins a place in the national finals they decide to re-work their routine and therein lies the conflict.

While Mary wants to invigorate the performance with new ideas and influences from other dance traditions, Preeti is urging the group to ensure their moves go back to basics, inspired by the South Asian roots of bhangra.

What begins as a disagreement over dance rapidly becomes intensely personal when Preeti accuses Mary, a girl of mixed-race heritage, of having a ‘white girl’s opinion’ so that Mary leaves the troupe and determines to set up her own rival group.

While on the surface, the show focuses on dance, the different viewpoints of the two girls is a vehicle for exploring identity, tradition, self-knowledge and self-confidence.

Written by Rehana Lew Mirza and Mike Lew and directed by Stafford Arima, while this is no doubt a worthy subject for exploration, Bhangra Nation does get itself bogged down in its messaging as it progresses. The show runs to nearly three hours which is a long time to tell us that being true to ourselves is what really matters. There is little doubt the audience has picked up the moral of the story long before the characters on stage.

The real joy of this production lies in the music written by Sam Willmott and performed live by a team of talented musicians, however, and the spectacular dancing choreographed by Rujuta Vaidya. Bringing together a whole host of dance and music including not only bhangra but also kathak, hip-hop, Bollywood and even a touch of Latin, the show is a firecracker of youthful energy and enthusiasm.

The show is visually impressive in its rainbow of costumes by Linda Cho and also in the imaginative use of projection. Designed by David Bengali, this really comes into its own during a light-hearted send-up of Bollywood in which images and mandalas swirl across the stage. The projections also help with the storytelling as seen in the wonderful song “Dot Dot Dot” where Mary and her love interest Billy explore the tentative beginning of their relationship by text while words and messages play out above them.

Jena Pandya brings charm and humour to her Mary. This may be a young woman in the throws of an identity crisis but she also manages to undertake the exploration while falling in love and creating new bonds of friendship.

Zaynah Ahmed (as Preeti) and Mervin Noronha (as Amit) in a scene from Bhangra Nation at Birmingham Rep
Zaynah Ahmed and Mervin Noronha in Bhangra Nation, © Craig Sugden

Zaynah Ahmed’s Preeti is a much less accommodating character and her determination to enforce her views on the rest of the team alienates many of her fellow dancers – but we also understand her own search for authenticity while growing up as a South Asian woman in another country and culture.

Singer and restauranteur Rekha, played by Sohm Kapila, is the older voice of wisdom who blends feisty comedy with gentle empathy, helping the younger people find their inner selves by pointing out some home truths.

The production brings together a professional cast with local performers and the team has been rehearsed brilliantly as it isn’t easy to spot those who are new to the stage.

Bhangra Nation was first mounted in California under the title Bhangin’ It and has been largely revised on crossing the Atlantic which begs the question why the creative team has kept the action set amid American colleges. Moving the story into the British university bhangra scene would have made the production so much more relevant to its current audience without detracting from its plot.

That said, the show, which is co-produced by Birmingham Rep in association with Mara Isaacs, Tom Kirdahy and Peggy Koenig, is hugely enjoyable. An exuberant celebration of dance and music, it also celebrates the connections we share irrespective of our backgrounds and beliefs.