Review: Bhangra Nation

A Birmingham Rep production, as seen by Jessica Harris.

With its stunning dancing, wonderful singing, and dazzling costumes, the Birmingham Rep’s new musical Bhangra Nation is a fabulous spectacle. High energy, sharp choreography, and a good dose of humour make this show a mesmerising watch. At the same time, lead characters have sufficient depth and back-story to stir the emotions.

Cultural forms, and the way in which they constantly change into something new, are at the heart of the production. Dance styles range from bhangra to kathak, with a bit of hip-hop and jazz dance thrown in. Musical styles shift from traditional Punjabi folk, with some fabulous dhol drumming, to tunes that could have come from American musicals of the 1950s and 60s.

The nature of bhangra itself, of how it has been adopted internationally and morphed into forms such as Bollywood, is shown in a brilliant song and dance routine. Featuring Rekha, the newly found bhangra coach, it is performed at The Samosa Hut, with the full cast dancing and singing, and adorned by pink umbrellas in the shape of flowers.

The topic of cultural authority, and of who has the right to say what should influence our cultural lifeblood, runs throughout. It is told through the story of Mary and Preeti and of the two rival bhangra teams they run. Mary is uncertain of who she is, as a person of both Indian and American heritage, whilst Preeti is determined that cultural expression should be rooted in past traditions.

The pull of traditional cultural expression, and the dilemma this presents to those whose landmarks have changed, is developed through dance in particular. Mary’s kathak duet with her mother is beautifully performed, illustrating her desire to take the dance style into her bhangra team’s performance. The scene of Preeti returning to Chandigarh in the Punjab is equally striking: subdued costuming and lighting enhance the delicacy of movement by women in the fields and transport us to another time and place. Both Mary and Preeti must find out who their community is, as they live their lives in a place removed from their forebears.

The story is fleshed out by a strong cast of non-conformists, led by Sunita who brings a radical feminist perspective to things. Along with Billy and many others in the bhangra teams, she refuses to conform to cultural stereotypes, and rejects expectations of how she should express her identity, ethnicity and sexuality.

Staging works well all round, making effective use of sets on wheels to create intimate spaces when needed, without being over-fussy. The spotlight is rightly on the performers and their many skills.

Mary is played by Jena Pandya, Sunita by Siobhan Athwal, Preeti by Zaynah Ahmed and Billy by Iván Fernández González. Dhol drumming was by Parvinder Kaur and Juggy Rihal.

The production was directed by Stafford Arima, choreographer was Rujuta Vaidya, costume designer was Linda Cho and lighting designer was Nick Richings.

Bhangra Nation is an excellent illustration of the contribution the Rep makes to Birmingham and the wider cultural infrastructure. It is a mark of how cultural expression, whether through dance, music, fashion or other forms, is a dynamic and creative force in our lives, and of how it can bring people from different heritages together. The audience at the Rep on press night certainly confirmed this. See it if you can. This is one you will remember!

Bhangra Nation is at the Rep until 16th March. For further information visit

Pics – Craig Sugden.