The Far Pavilions
Four million pounds have been lavished on this new musical adaptation of M. M. Kaye’s novel ‘The Far Pavilions’, and it shows in every respect.
The costumes are sumptuously authentic, and must have taken a small regiment of needle-smiths the best part of an era to create. The sets, particularly the palace and British Officers’ mess, are both pretty stunning. And the now almost compulsory gadgets – revolving stage, automated scenery and the like – are used to considerable effect. There’s a highly competent and substantial orchestra, and even the proscenium arch is pressed into service decorated with a gargantuan canopy. Glowering down on all and sundry is the formidable and considerable weight of Queen Victoria in the form of a massive portrait. There’s a cast of 30 (which almost seemed like thousands), backed-up by a crew that involves almost every conceivable theatrical skill. The acting performances are enthusiastic, the musical arrangements are solid, and the standard of singing is high.
But yet … for all the money and skill this musical recipe contains, it produces a result that could be any one of a dozen musicals either currently running or which we’ve seen in the West End over the past decade or so. It’s quite simply one more of those formulaic productions based on massive cash expenditure that have been profit-spinners for West End producers. It’s hard to fault, but equally hard to praise.
For me, the problem lies with the tunes – they just aren’t memorable enough. The real test of a great musical is that you can leave the theatre humming at least one of the tunes. Now there are a couple of hummable tunes in this production – for example, I enjoyed ‘Dream of Me Tonight’, and ‘Freedom and Honour’ - but sadly they didn’t linger in my short term memory long enough for me to hum them as a I marched back to my humble abode – and believe me, I tried. In contrast, when I saw ‘Jerry Springer the Opera’ I annoyed everyone for weeks after the show by continually singing ‘This is my Jerry Springer moment’.
However, the production also contains some Indian music (by Kuljit Bhamra), which is both captivating and energetic. When the musical numbers change gear and adapt to Indian influences the production starts to buzz, and I could almost feel the audience respond. But there wasn’t nearly enough of it, and it left the disappointing impression that someone was ‘playing safe’.
Mary Margaret “Mollie” Kaye’s 900+ page novel (which in itself deserves an endurance medal) has been radically pruned and diluted to fit into a running time (or should that be a ‘campaign’?) of just over 2 and half hours. But, it works surprisingly well, and the first half zips through the story at a commendable and very watchable pace. However, the second half saunters somewhat, and even drags a little, though the musical introduction to the second half was more substantial and interesting than the very short overture at the beginning.
Set in India around the middle of the nineteenth century, the story revolves around a young British army officer, Ashton Pelham-Martyn (played by Hadley Fraser), initially raised by an Indian woman before learning that he is actually of English parentage. After a British education, Ashton returns to India to serve in the army where his loyalties and emotions are torn in different directions. The play justifiably raises some complex issues including the machinations, warmongering and politicking of the British Raj – one of the less honourable periods of British history – though the British are not the only villains in this piece. And there’s also the love story angle. Ashton proposes to a British woman only to be rejected because of his ‘Indian’ upbringing.
Overall, the audience’s reaction seemed to be appreciative but polite, rather than rapturous, and I noticed that even one of the actors seemed to recognise that the stage management were pushing their luck with a second curtain call - the applause was already on the wane.
I readily admit that I seem to be out of tune in the appreciation of the current mainstream style of musicals, so I suspect that ‘The Far Pavilions’ will be bedding down, and hogging space at the end of Shaftesbury Avenue for some time to come. Because enough theatre goers seem to be content with the multi-million pound musical spectacle recipe. But it’s not enough for me. I just want some really great, hummable tunes.
What the critics had to say.....
PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, "The under-cast and uninterestingly "effective" production by Gale Edwards boasts great costumes, one or two lovely sets." LYN GARDNER for THE GUARDIAN says, "No, it's not high art, but it is not kitsch rubbish.BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "If you feel like being swept along by romance, melodrama and Anglo tunes, you might do worse than sample Gale Edwards’s production."