Get set for an Indian summer

The Far Pavilions is an epic spanning 25 years of the British Raj
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The Independent Culture

One night seven years ago, Michael Ward went home to his wife and told her he needed to find the next big commercial idea for a new West End musical. He had no experience of working in theatre, no money to invest of his own and virtually no idea of how to go about it. Yet John Whitney, the former chairman of Andrew Lloyd Webber's company the Really Useful Group, had challenged him over dinner to come up with the next Cats. When The Far Pavilions opens later this week, Ward will finally know whether his efforts to meet that challenge have been a success.

One night seven years ago, Michael Ward went home to his wife and told her he needed to find the next big commercial idea for a new West End musical. He had no experience of working in theatre, no money to invest of his own and virtually no idea of how to go about it. Yet John Whitney, the former chairman of Andrew Lloyd Webber's company the Really Useful Group, had challenged him over dinner to come up with the next Cats. When The Far Pavilions opens later this week, Ward will finally know whether his efforts to meet that challenge have been a success.

The Far Pavilions is the 1978 blockbuster written by M M Kaye: an epic melodrama full of adventure, passion and politics, spanning 25 years of the British Raj, from the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857-8 to the second Afghan war. The story, written by an Englishwoman in love with India, is dominated by the torrid, dangerous relationship between Ashton Pelham-Martyn - born to English parents but brought up in India among Muslims - and Anjuli, an Indian princess.

The West End is a tricky place to launch a new business venture, let alone float an all-consuming passion, but Ward is banking on the story's central theme resonating with a similar intensity among its target audience: Britain's Anglo-Asian community who have settled in the UK, but who feel part of an entirely different culture.

The Far Pavilions could well be the West End's first truly Anglo-Asian musical - one that attempts to tell a story that sprung directly from the strong cultural and economic relationship between India and England in the 19th century, yet which also speaks directly to today's generation. "Every 25 years or so, a new generation rediscovers the stories spawned by the Indo-British historical era," says Ward. "The film Lagaan, set in the same period, proved really popular with the diaspora."

The Far Pavilions follows Lloyd Webber's Bollywood musical Bombay Dreams into the West End by a few years; Ward agrees that the timing should prove an advantage, rather than suggest that the show might have missed the boat. When the latter opened, it came on the cusp of a small but significant wave of Anglo-Asian cultural assimilations into the mainstream that included the TV comedy Goodness Gracious Me, and the film Monsoon Wedding. The flip-side was that anything remotely Bollywood springing up at around that time risked being accused of jumping on the bandwagon; of being seen as merely a sort of cultural fashion-accessory.

Theatre companies such as Tamasha may have been promoting Asian theatre in Britain for years, but they have always existed on the margins. Undoubtedly, the popularity of Bombay Dreams paved the way for The Far Pavilions to happen; the hope now is that the idea of an Asian musical can now stand alone in the mainstream on its own terms.

'The Far Pavilions', Shaftesbury Theatre, London WC2 (0870 890 1107), Thursday to 4 September

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