Jena Pandya as Mary and Zaynah Ahmed as Preeti with the full company.

Pictures: Craig Sugden

Bhangra Nation

Birmingham Rep


Welcome to the battle of the bhangras. If you fancy a work out, or need to lose a few pounds, then this is the show for you. It’s fast, furious, enormous fun and will leave you with a smile on your face - and completely exhausted - without ever leaving your seat.

Now I must admit, as a dedicated dad dancer (and that only if pushed) I know more about the dietary habits of unicorns than I do about the traditional dances of the Indian subcontinent, or anybody’s subcontinent come to that, so this new musical is not only entertaining it is educational.

You discover that bhangra – think of aerobics on amphetamines - is a traditional folk dance from the Punjab to celebrate the harvest, so we are told by Preeti in a lovely performance by Zaynah Ahmed.

Preeti is a traditionalist, to her bhangra, its moves, its music, its steps are set in stone, even more so after a recent visit to her family of traditional relatives in the Punjabi capital of Chandigarh.

Then there is Mary, in an equally impressive performance from Jena Pandya, who we saw at the Rep in What’s New Pussycat?

Mary wants bhangra to evolve, to grow, to incorporate other music, which is akin to blasphemy to Preeti, who accuses Mary, who can only sport an Indian mother, of having white girl ideas.


Mervin Noronha as Amit withe the Tigres

As cultural tiffs go it would hardly spawn a musical except the pair are members of the East Lansing University Tigres, the uni’s No 1 bhangra team, representing Michigan and heading for the Bhangra Nation, the USA national finals held in Chicago.

The white girl insult is the final straw and Mary storms off while the Tigres head off to win the 1992 national title.

And Mary? Pushed by would be urban guerilla roommate Sunita, with Siobhan Athwal adding wonderful attitude to the part, complete with papier-mâché female reproductive organs . . . don’t ask . . . Mary decides to start a rival bhangra team.

The auditions are, should we say, interesting with a disparate bunch of misfits looking for friends and a chance to belong, displaying dance moves ranging from statues to a scarecrow in a gale. Among them is Billy, given a rather apologetic air by Iván Fernández González. Billy is a DJ taking a music degree and wants to join not because he is into bhangra, but for a credit on his music course after dropping the current module.

Under the rules of musicals his disinterest and merely using the new group for a credit, guarantees he will be an important character in any success and the main love interest, so that’s that all sorted then.


Jena Pandy as Mary and Iván Fernández González as Billy with a touch of the Busby Berkeleys in the bhangra

With the newcomers closer to abysmal than a bhangra team Mary and Sunita seek assistance and coaching from Bollywood star and now restauranteur Rekha, a magical performance by the wonderful Sohm Kapila. She delivers one liners and asides like a master of standup and plays the part of a glamorous diva with aplomb – and what a voice.

Meanwhile the Tigres more laid-back leader, Amit, a laid back Mervin Noronha, has been usurped and the Tigres are under the strictly traditional thumb of Preeti – so with former best friends running rival groups the ELU bhangra scene has become personal.

But remember this is a musical and among the colourful, stunning and exhaustingly energetic bhangra numbers are some highlight musical moments. Perhaps the most touching was Kal Mein Ishq Talaash Kare as Mary dances to the memory of her long dead mother, a mother seen behind a mirrored screen in a coordinated dance.

The strange thing was that with the classical Indian music opening with Rekha singing beautifully, live from the pit, if you had changed the instrumentation you could have almost believed you were listening to a traditional Gaelic lament from the likes of Clannad – the amazing universality of music.

And while Mary remembers her mother we have Preeti trying to honour her family and traditions with Ve Leja Mainu Pind Wal Tu, her very personal and traditional ballet.

With the Tigres rebelling against the authoritarian, old-style regime of Preeti and the rival group having more freelance ideas than members neither ship is sailing smoothly with the nationals fast approaching which gives us Eat Each Other as Amit and Sunita, at the bus stop, come to a sort of understanding. Rivalry, they agree, isn’t actually working that well.

Meanwhile, in the romantic comedy section, we have the clever Dot Dot Dot, a sort of WhatsApp romance between Billy and Mary with messages projected on the walls as our hesitant lovers make their tentative moves (happy emojis all round).

Video projections from David Bengali add to the production on an excellent set from Michael Taylor which gives a colonial brick college quad feel along with classrooms and gym, Chicago hall and even Punjabi fields aided by Nick Richings’ lighting.


Billy and Mary discovering #love and #romance in their #life  (#dot #dot #dot)

It is a set full of interest yet with the space for the extensive dancing choreographed by Rujuta Vaidya, which is at the heart of the production.

The clashes between the two groups is the hook to hang the show on but that opens the door to a whole range of themes from cultural identity, to looking backwards or forwards or both, honouring or at least accepting the past but living the present and looking towards the future, and simplest of all, finding yourself, who you are.

In short it is the well worn path of a rites of passage musical using the vehicle of a thriving interest in bhangra. Apparently bhangra clubs, classes and groups have spread and are thriving way beyond its cultural roots in both the USA and UK, with everything from social keep fit classes to local and national competitions. You live and learn.

The musical started life as Bhangin’ It in San Diego, California, two years ago with a book by Mike Lew and Rehana Lew Mirza and music and lyrics by Sam Willmott with this Birmingham Rep co-production directed by Stafford Arima.

Music comes from a nine piece band under musical director Josh Sood and incorporates among the familiar instruments of the pit the likes of the bansuri, a bamboo flute, a whole collection of drums, tabla, dholak and that most ancient of instruments, the clay ghatam along with the dhol all played by Juggy Rihal.

The show opens and ends with the dhol, double ended drum played on stage by Parvinder Kaur, the UK’s first female dhol player. Her father, Balbir Singh Bhujangy, is credited with introducing bhangra to the UK in 1967 and she started playing dhol with him in the early 90s. She started Eternal Taal, the first female bhangra band and can point to appearing at Glastonbury on her impressive CV. She makes her dhol sing, simply amazing and mesmerising to watch.

This is a fun show, suitable for the whole family, with humour and heart, full of colour and a touch of Bollywood pizazz, with enough feel good to keep you smiling, with the odd quick step and shoulder shake, all the way home To 16-03-24

Roger Clarke


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