The International Writers Magazine: Review: The
Empire Musical Strikes Back
Preview of the new musical
by Ben Macpherson
Inspired by M. M. Kaye's novel of the same
name, The Far Pavilions has book and lyrics by Olivier Award-winning
Stephen Clark and music by Philip Henderson.
Lyrics by: Stephen Clark; Book by: Stephen Clark; Director: Gale
Edwards; Producer: Michael E. Ward and John Whitney for Far Pavilions
LTD, in assocation with Arjun C. Wanet and Reita Gadkari; Designer:
Lez Brotherston; Choreographer: John Cameron; Lighting Designer:
Peter Mumford; Costume Designer: Andreanne Neofitou; Sound: Rick
Cast includes: Hadley Fraser, Kulvinder Ghir, Dianne Pilkington
and David Burt
in the evocative environs of Northern India, The Far Pavilions spans
the 25 years between the Sepoy Uprisings of 1857 and the Second
Afghan War, telling the story of an illicit love between a British
Officer (Ashton Pelham-Martyn) and an Indian Princess (Anjuli).
A chance visit to
London last weekend resulted in my doing something I havent ever
done before - seeing a Preview performance of a new show. The original
plan was to see the new Lloyd Webber show; but, being booked solid over
the Easter period, we gave that one a miss. Standing inside one of those
small ticket booths, at the top of Leicester Square, a poster caught
my eye The Far Pavilions - A Musical. Hadnt
ever heard of it. Saw it had only opened two days previous.
"Right, well take it". So we did.
So, seated in the Shaftesbury Theatre, I was considering the whys
and wherefores of the show, based on the novel by M.M. Kaye and
adapted for stage by Michael E. Ward, who was also associate producer.
With book and lyrics by Stephen Clark (who I knew from his work on the
new version of Martin Guerre) I was optimistic. The Orchestral score
was by none other than John Cameron, a name associated with Les Miserables.
Things were indeed looking good. It was Directed by Gale Edwards. The
only thing I knew of Edwards work was her co-writing and Directing
on Andrew Lloyd Webbers original production of Whistle Down
The Wind. This didnt depress me too much, but didnt
exactly inspire confidence. But, ever willing to keep an open mind on
such things, I settled back in my seat as the lights went down.
The first thing to impress as you sit in your seat is the canvas of
Queen Victoria which fills the stage. Lavish and imposing, it more than
matched the grandeur of the Shaftesbury Theatre. So, as the picture
of Queen Victoria became drenched in blood, I became very much intrigued.
Before the last sentence intrigues you too much, the musical itself
is set in Northern India, during the British occupation in 1857. It
tells the story of a young British Officer, Ashton Pelham-Martyn and
the rocky road to love for him and his Indian Princess Anjuli (played
by Gayatri Iyer, from the recent film Bride & Prejudice).
Knowing this much, one couldnt help but feel that Andrew Lloyd
Webbers production Bombay Dreams had somewhat of an influence
on bringing another Indian musical to the West End. However this show
does not deal with the polished, superficiality of life in Bollywood,
this is a political romance, which, both in story and production is
more raw, and has more integrity in some aspects than Bombay Dreams.
Admittedly, they are different theatrical vehicles and nothing can detract
from the impact Bombay had. This show may not have received backing
if Lloyd Webber hadnt started the ball rolling. But onto the show
Expertly told through Gale Edwards cinematic staging, smooth lighting
transitions and the broad sweeping canvas of music provided by Philip
Henderson; the first fifteen minutes barely stops. Two small children
are used to represent Anjuli and Ashton when they were younger, as Ashton
recounts his background to his friend Walter (Simon Gleeson). Throughout
the show, these two children appear at key emotional moments - often
in dream-like sequences reminiscent of staging like Somewhere
from West Side Story. That reference aside, it provided an added emotional
texture which (once I finally realised what was happening) worked extremely
well. The cast overall performed to a very accomplished degree - with
the two principal males, Fraser and Gleeson having outstanding voices.
The production (which cost £4m pounds) certainly spared no expense
on set, a lavish, large and spectacular setting, which however, to its
credit - there wasnt that much of, allowing simple but direct
emotions; exactly what was needed. The use of internal revolving levels
on the floating stage allowed the characters to circle each other without
moving. This was a very accomplished effect, and must have taken Edwards
an eternity to work out. However, always working on the less is more
principle - it was a little overused. As was the music.
As someone who studies musicals, it seems to me there are several categories
or pigeon-holes (if youll pardon the expression) of musicals.
One of these categories is the musical-opera-montage which
seems to pop up every now and then. In 2000 we had Napoleon
by Williams and Sabiston, which also premiered in the Shaftesbury. This
was another of this sort. The composer attempts to write a classic musical
using structures from opera. The earliest memory I have of this type
(being on twenty) is Lloyd Webbers Aspects of Love. Little
book and lots of tunes which sweep and soar - not really allowing the
audience to settle into the show. Add to this the cinematic
staging and there were times during The Far Pavilions when I
just wanted it to slow and consider for a while. It ran the risk of
being wooly and monotonous. Also, the music was orchestrated by the
same arranger as Les Mis (mentioned earlier) which...yes, youve
guessed meant that we at times could have equally been sat in Queens
Theatre just along the road watching Les Mis.
The battle scene at the end had the sweeping battle anthem sweeping
round the auditorium as the soldiers all ran in slow motion to their
death! Hello Trevor Nunn! It really was Les Mis and Napoleon in India!
It isnt for me to say whether this was Edwards use of well known
and accepted theatrical signals and techniques in order for the audience
to plug into the emotion; or whether, in short, she was
deliberately carrying out pastiche - and being lazy. Either way, I would
strongly urge her to reconsider. Originality is sorely lacking in the
West End on any great scale and whilst this show wouldnt have
broken new ground, she couldnt have freshened the classic
musical (for that is was this attempts to be) up a bit with some
different ideas. I mean, it works...but who wants to pay £60 for
a seat to see a musical which pretends to be Les Mis? That sounds too
negative doesn t it?
Admittedly, this show was only in preview and doesnt open for
another week or so to the barrage of critics. All I can hope is that
they forgive the direct references to a million other musicals of the
same type and enjoy what is a very accomplished show with strong leads,
good set, sensitive handling of emotion and sophisticated (if sometimes
On approach to the theatre, the decoration and expense spent on the
exterior to advertise the show shouts out that they obviously intend
to be in for a stay. However, in the current musical climate will this
show run as perhaps its backers and artists are hoping? Honest
answer: Time will tell.
The Far Pavilions is currently previewing at the Shaftesbury
Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London. Press Night: 14th April 2005.
Times: Tues- Sat eves 19:30, Thurs, Sat, Sun Mat 15:00
Prices: £17.50 - £47.50
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