Bhangra Nation: A New Musical review – big, bright and bursting with energy

<span>Zaynah Ahmed (centre) and company in the ‘glorious’ Bhangra Nation.</span><span>Photograph: Craig Sugden</span>
Zaynah Ahmed (centre) and company in the ‘glorious’ Bhangra Nation.Photograph: Craig Sugden

Councillor Liz Clements cried last Tuesday as she talked about the prospect of Birmingham city council’s culture budget being wiped out as part of its plan to save £300m over two years. Birmingham Rep is prepared for the coming shocks. In recent years, the theatre has developed strong relations with producers, at home and abroad, that enable it to present a richly varied, audience-engaging programme.

Bhangra Nation is one such co-production. Big, bright, bouncy and bursting with enough energy to propel it across the Atlantic, this dance-centred, coming-of-age musical, first presented in San Diego in 2022, has been reworked especially for its UK premiere by the original creative team, including Rehana Lew Mirza and Mike Lew (co-authors of the book), Sam Willmott (music and lyrics) and Stafford Arima (director).

The storyline is paint-by-numbers simple. East Lansing University’s bhangra dance team is torn apart when two members clash over performance styles. Mary (Jena Pandya) wants to incorporate Indian kathak dance moves, in honour of her late mother. Preeti (Zaynah Ahmed), whose family is from the Punjab, where bhangra originated as part of harvest celebrations, is dismayed that the team already mixes in hip-hop and Bollywood; she wants to respect the authenticity of the form. Mary sets up a breakaway team, made up of a diverse group of people who feel they don’t fit in.

What brings the action to glorious life is the way the two girls’ cultural identity crises are given expression through dance and music. If you think of the book as an over-structured scaffolding for an explosive exploration of the cross-cultural history of bhangra, this is a truly terrific show – beautifully presented and delivered. Choreography by Rujuta Vaidya (with additional choreography and musical staging, here, from Rebecca Howell) seamlessly shuffles, shuttles and interweaves traditional and modern, Asian and American styles, embodying through movement the moral of the piece, delivered by film star, dance teacher and restaurateur Rekha (Sohm Kapila): “You can’t go forward when you are looking back!”