Michael Portillo - Empire lines

Theatre - A musical romance of the Raj sings loud and clear, writes Michael Portillo

The Far Pa

Mary Margaret Kaye's The Far Pavilions was already a won- derfully old-fashioned romantic novel when it was first published in 1978 and shot up the bestseller lists. The author was 70 when she produced her 900-page epic of injustice, heroism and love triumphant set in the British Raj around the mid-19th century. The new musical version condenses the treacle by squeezing Kaye's material into just over two hours.

The writer, Stephen Clark, has made the most of this opportunity to blend east with west. The sounds of Indian pipes and percussion and a synthesised sitar emanate from the pit. On stage, the play is at its best when at its most Indian, coming alive during spectacular scenes set in the palace of the Maharaja of Gulkote or in the barracks where the soldiers of the Indian army dance.

The director, Gale Edwards, has chosen a minimal (though dynamic) set, but she gives full rein to the costume designer Andreane Neofitou, whose work is a feast for the eye. The Indian women's saris, ranging from tangerine to amethyst, are brilliantly choreographed and eclipsed only by the stronger tones worn by the male potentates - the maharaja and the Rana of Bhitor. The ballroom scenes are set alight by the scarlet mess kit of the British officers. That the Corps of Guides was the first unit to wear khaki in the field does not daunt Neofitou, who dresses them in a wonderfully elegant uniform. She has further scope with the British women, creating day and evening costumes that reflect the self-confidence of the Victorians at the height of their power.

Compressing a long novel into one evening's entertainment causes some problems. The plot rushes forward. Insuperable crises arise in the space of a few lines and are resolved just as quickly. The effect is comic but, hey, you have to suspend disbelief to watch this anyway.

The hero, Ashton (or "Ash"), is confused about his identity. Brought up as Ashok, living a servant's life at the maharaja's court, he was later educated in England. He feels at home in either culture, but is rejected by both. British snobbery and racism make it hard for him to marry Belinda, the daughter of the Crown's provincial administrator. That is lucky, really, because his childhood sweetheart, Princess Anjuli, has pined for him during his years at public school. It becomes obvious around the tenth bar how it will all turn out, but before the curtain falls we are served up dollops of cruelty and betrayal, and bucketfuls of self-sacrifice and gallantry.

This is a big moment in the career of Hadley Fraser, who takes the role of Ash just three years after graduating from the Royal Academy of Music. He has the looks, stage presence and voice to carry off a long and demanding part very well. Audiences will love him. Only once is he tempted into egregious overacting. His devoted buddy, Lieutenant Hamilton, is played by the experienced Australian heart-throb Simon Gleeson, who has plenty of his own numbers with which to show his fans what he can do.

Anjuli is performed by Gayatri Iyer, the voice from the soundtrack of Bride and Prejudice. She sings well and brings the necessary grit to the role - the princess is anything but soppy. Sophiya Haque (lately in Bombay Dreams) is perhaps even more memorable playing the villainous Janoo Rani. Haque makes it easy to understand how this sinewy dancer's gyrating hips could seduce the maharaja, with ghastly effects on both the lovers' fortunes and the tranquillity of the raj. Dean Hussain excellently carries off an energetic cameo role as Awal Shah, one of the Guides who specialises in satirising the British, while Kabir Bedi (the villain from Octopussy) has all the dignity and authority required to be Ash's father figure.

The composer, Philip Henderson, has evidently been busy, as the show boasts 41 musical numbers and the songs do all the work: there are very few interludes of spoken word. The numbers are varied and short, and the reprises are not overdone. In common with most modern musicals, the singers are sometimes required to shout rather than sing, and the orchestration can be overwhelming. The quality of the singing is patchy, with some distinctly coarse moments, but the diction is universally superb, which matters in this piece.

The hit number is intended to be "I Promise You", in which the lovers dream of putting their troubles behind them once they have reached the pure air and waterfalls of a faraway mountain. The song is first sung by the young Ash and Anjuli. For that to work, the director will need to find youngsters who can carry the tune - but in any case, the song is unlikely to outsell "Somewhere Over the Rainbow", on which it seems to be based.

No one who buys a ticket to this show will come looking for sophistication, but given the success of the novel, this highly competent stage version should do well.

Booking on 020 7379 5399 until 4 September

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