The Far Pavilions, Shaftesbury Theatre, London

A flavourless ingredient of West End's Bombay Mix
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The Independent Culture

In the West End of late, we have surrendered, rather enjoyably, to being swept to India on a number of occasions. With his producer's hat on, Andrew Lloyd-Webber gave us Bombay Dreams and a beguiling musical Bombay mix, courtesy of composer A R Rahman.

In the West End of late, we have surrendered, rather enjoyably, to being swept to India on a number of occasions. With his producer's hat on, Andrew Lloyd-Webber gave us Bombay Dreams and a beguiling musical Bombay mix, courtesy of composer A R Rahman.

And late last summer, there was a Twelfth Night that decamped to the subcontinent. The play's painful comedy of class-distinction benefited greatly from being viewed through the prism of the caste system, while the heady, heavy atmosphere of erotic longing certainly took to being transplanted in a tropical clime.

And now we have The Far Pavilions, a big-budget musical adapted from the best-selling 1983 novel by M M Kaye. A sort of Romeo and Juliet of the Raj era crossed with a public school Gone With the Wind, the under-cast and uninterestingly "effective" production by Gale Edwards boasts great costumes, one or two lovely sets (there's a mirrored palace I wouldn't mind buying for weekend recreation), and some clearly good intentions - intentions that even determined West End musical-haters will not be able to sneer at.

But the gap between intention and execution is wide. The story fields some terribly bigoted whites and you know, without a doubt, that it's precisely those individuals who are going to turn out to be able to shed their prejudices.

The manner - musically and dramatically - in which they divest themselves of their insularity is the problem. The programme (if you can afford it) is illuminating on this score and, indeed, the show's score. It tells us that the "Book & Lyrics" are by Stephen Clark and that, the "Music" is by Philip Henderson and, a bit further down, that the "Indian Music and Lyrics" are by Kuljit Bhamra.

That's an interesting pecking order, and one that is not justified by the fact that the hero (Hadley Fraser) is a boy who is brought up as a lower-class Indian, falls in reciprocated love with the daughter of a Maharajah, and later discovers himself to be English, whereupon he succumbs to a makeover as an army officer.

No, the story cries out for a musical tussle between English and Indian music, between stiff-backed Victorian vernacular and the churning splash of sitars, between the regimented and the improvised. There are a couple of elating sequences of Indian dance, exemplifying the many wonderful ways in which the human body can subvert the swirling, blocked swastika shape by cheeky upturning of the hands and feet and constant motion.

But, for example, when the self-sacrificing white pain-in-the-butt heroine gets to do her inevitable duet of tentative mutual reconciliation with the Indian heroine (whom the hero really loves) they might as well be singing "I Know Him So Well" from Chess for all the respect it shows, musically, to the latter's culture.

I'm conscious of the fact that I love the music to The King and I, which isn't the last word in musical accord with Thailand. That, though, was the Forties and Broadway.

This is a new century and the West End and the material and the audience deserve better.

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