The sun never sets on Stoppard's empire

The elements look similar: a time-scheme that hops back and forth between a historical period and the near-present; a story of literary / biographical detection in which one of the pleasures comes from watching how our myopic contemporaries misinterpret the past; and a mood that aims at emotional poignancy as well as intellectual playfulness. Indian Ink could, for all the world, be Tom Stoppard's Raj rehash of his highly successful Arcadia. Except that you wouldn't have to be much of a literary sleuth to ascertain that the new work is based on a radio play (In the Native State) which pre-dates Arcadia. And you wouldn't have to be much of a drama critic to realise fairly quickly that Indian Ink is inferior to both.

With much cumbersome trundling from Carl Toms's disappointing designs, the play shifts between India in 1930 and England and India in the mid- 1980s. Felicity Kendal appears as Flora Crewe, a bolshy "flapper" poet, who visits India in 1930 and meets the painter Nirad Das (Art Malik), who executes two portraits of her. The story of their relationship is intercut with scenes from more than 50 years on. Flora's elderly sister, Mrs Swan (Margaret Tyzack), is visited by the painter's son (Paul Bhattacharjee) while, in India, Flora's would-be biographer, an American academic, follows a tepid trail.

It's not just the sympathetic presence of Malik, who played Hari Kumar in The Jewel in the Crown, that makes you feel that the ironies and injustices of Empire have been explored maybe once too often through the device of bringing an Indian man into collision with an independent-minded girl from Blighty. At one point, Indian Ink tries to defuse such criticism. Referring to Forster's A Passage to India, Flora tells Das that she kept wanting to kick Dr Aziz "for not knowing his worth". Das pointedly remarks that perhaps she didn't finish the book. Touch.

But the patronising element in Flora's jaunty pep-talking concern ("You are trying to paint me from my own point of view instead of yours... You deserve the bloody Empire!") gets lost both in Kendal's performance, which is all winningly hearty pertness, and in the plot, where Flora does indeed function as the muse who inspires Das to return to a non-Western style. What she gets from him in return was, as far as I could make out, something she already possessed.

The play badly lacks narrative drive, and Peter Wood's production is powerless to disguise the work's radio origins. This is particularly true in the case of the American, who has to wander around with his edition of Flora's Collected Letters, glossing references in the speeches of others with his learnedly inept footnotes. Language as a forked instrument of colonialism is a theme throughout: in the wearisome comedy of misunderstandings, in the divided nature of Das, the Anglophile nationalist, and in the irony that Macaulay, who imposed English on India, did the cause of nationalism an unwitting favour by giving the different factions a common tongue. But the colonising tendencies of the language of American academe are never pulled into sharp enough relief alongside. And the unforgettable pang that Arcadia finally imparted exists here only in promissory form, suggesting that Indian Ink will leave a far from indelible stain.

n For details see page 26

Paul Taylor