Following on where Bombay Dreams and Twelfth Night left off, a taste of India was once again brought to the West End with the opening of The Far Pavilions; the Shaftesbury theatre was awash with colour for the press night of the new £4 million musical last night, as Matthew Amer found out…
An expectant crowd was greeted by turbaned doorman as they entered the theatre, while the auditorium was a sea of saris in every colour of the rainbow. Powerful pinks passed by shimmering turquoises as reds and golds intermingled; the audience was a visual feast before the show had even begun.
Among those eagerly awaiting the production were a more casually dressed Will Young, sporting the classic jeans and jacket look, ex-Satan (from Jerry Springer) David Bedella, June Whitfield, Geoffrey Palmer, Julia McKenzie, Lesley Philips, Warren Mitchell and Richard E. Grant.
A curtain-sized portrait of Queen Victoria gazed proudly over stage and auditorium as the audience took their seats, but as the music started, her façade was covered in dribbling blood, setting the tone for a production dominated by cultural tensions.
Set during the first 25 years of the British Raj, when the first cracks were beginning to appear in the Empire’s control of India, Hadley Fraser plays British officer Ashton-Pelham Martyn, a hero with a troubled history. Raised in India by a peasant woman, though the orphan of English parents; brought up as a servant in Gulkote, but sent to England to become an army officer, the only constant in his life is the love for his childhood friend Princess Anjuli (Bollywood singer Gayatri Iyer).
Ash arrives back in India at a time of unrest. There is talk of a Russian invasion from Afghanistan, and the Rana of Bhitar (played by Goodness Gracious Me’s Kulvinder Ghir) is fostering an uprising.
Les Brotherston’s set design, like the press night auditorium, is gloriously colourful and varied. The action moves from freezing Himalayan caves, the location for some hot love, to the opulent luxury of Indian palaces where jewel-encrusted fans and rich materials abound. The British, on the other hand, have it tough. Their quarters don’t compare favourably, with bland, sandy, crumbling walls providing the most basic of accommodation.
The Brits lose in the dancing stakes as well. Elegant though their uniform ballroom offering is, it is no match for the energetic, body-spinning, limb-twirling choreography of the Indian natives. And while the British uniforms are all the rage in army chic, they pale next to the wonderful outfits worn by Iyer, Ghir and Sophiya Haque (who plays the manipulative Janoo Rani). Soaring power notes and stirring songs are accompanied by an orchestration blending the juxtaposed elements of Britain and India; flutes play alongside Indian pipes, violins with sarangi.
Though set over a century ago, the story and themes of love, acceptance and identity are timeless. When, in the second half, one of the Indian soldiers fighting in Afghanistan comments “I’m not afraid of dying, I just need a reason”, the sentiment could be extremely relevant to many more contemporary conflicts.
Tragedy is never far away in this epic love story, where so much could go so terribly wrong. To find out if love wins in the end, and what induced the rustle of handkerchiefs at the show’s climax, a visit to the Shaftesbury’s own corner of 1850s India must be made.