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The International Writers Magazine
: Review: The Empire Musical Strikes Back

The Far Pavilions
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 Clarke
Cast includes: Hadley Fraser, Kulvinder Ghir, Dianne Pilkington and David Burt

Set 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 haven’t 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’. Hadn’t ever heard of it. Saw it had only opened two days previous.
"Right, we’ll take it". So we did.

So, seated in the Shaftesbury Theatre, I was considering the why’s and wherefore’s 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 Webber’s original production of Whistle Down The Wind. This didn’t depress me too much, but didn’t 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 couldn’t help but feel that Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 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 hadn’t started the ball rolling. But onto the show itself.

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 wasn’t 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 you’ll 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 Webber’s 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, you’ve guessed meant that we at times could have equally been sat in Queen’s 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 isn’t 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 wouldn’t have broken new ground, she couldn’t 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 doesn’t 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 clichéd) staging.

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 it’s 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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