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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Far Pavilions
Shaftsbury Theatre, Spring 2005

This is a pretty lousy musical, but it's harmless.

It's colourful and has a nice romantic-novel type story, and some of the mainly older people around me enjoyed it. I can see it pleasing coach parties of once-a-year theatregoers, but I couldn't in good conscience recommend it to anyone else.

M. M. Kaye's 1978 novel is the sort of page-turner that usually ends up as a TV movie or miniseries. An Englishman raised in 19th-century India returns as a soldier, only to have his fellow officers and English fiancee reject him for his peasant upbringing. Meanwhile he's haunted by the memory of the Indian princess he last saw when they were ten.

Meeting again after a dozen years, they immediately go into a clinch and spend the interval kama sutra-ing. But she's forced to marry an evil rajah and his old regiment is being ambushed in Afghanistan, and so he spends Act Two racing back and forth across the subcontinent trying to save everyone before the lovers are allowed to walk off into the sunset.

Except for some Indian music credited to Kuljit Bhamra, the more than forty songs are by Philip Henderson and Stephen Clark, and not a single one is memorable. From the handful of possible sources to be influenced by, composer Henderson has chosen Boublil and Schonberg, and at least a half-dozen of the songs sound like out-takes from Les Miz, with the same melodic lines and orchestrations.

(A trawl through the programme small print tells us that both orchestrator and musical arranger are Les Miz vets) 

Almost inevitably, you'll also catch hints of Lloyd Webber and a couple of Sondheimish rhymes, and there's even an echo of Marvin Hamlisch's Chorus Line. There are a lot of very brightly coloured sets evoking India as filtered through Hollywood movies of the 1950s, and the ghost of Debra Paget (the all-purpose exotic dancer of those films) hovers over the choreography.

The show is really too easy a target to poke fun at. The English bad guy comes complete with twirl-worthy moustache, and only the chief Indian bad guy has a bigger one. Enough people repeatedly warn that the days of the Raj are numbered for you to say to yourself, 'Yeah, just a hundred years or so to go'.

When the racist British officers and their Indian soldiers join in a song about how they're fighting together for Empire and freedom, you might be inclined to think, 'Hey, wait a minute there'. And when they start singing 'Ours not to reason why...' a few years before Kipling has even been born, you might get a fit of the giggles.

One of the cliffhanger climaxes is built on the Indian princess being forced to throw herself on the pyre of her murdered (by someone else, but that's a whole other subplot) bad guy husband, since everyone seems to have forgotten that a big deal was made back in Act One about that practice being abolished.

And the other big crisis involves the hopelessly surrounded British army, though the princess has no trouble wandering through the battlefield for the final reunion.

Nobody you've ever heard of is in the show, and some of them are likely to work again in the future, so there's no need to name and shame. Yes, the show offers colour and music and can satisfy the undemanding, but just about every other musical in town does that better.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  The Far Pavilions - Shaftsbury Theatre 2005