'Brontë goes to Bollywood" is how the British-Asian theatre company Tamasha has tagged its cross-over version of Wuthering Heights, in which saris, song and sand replace the rather more dour elements of Emily Brontë's Gothic novel. Although not a homage to Hindi cinema in the way that Slumdog Millionaire is, this adaptation by Deepak Verma is persuasive enough to have reduced the three Oldham-Indian ladies beside me to tears.
As Sanjay in EastEnders, Verma used to say "This time next year we'll be millionaires." Verma might well have struck gold with his idea of relocating the tale of doomed passion and poetic grand vision from the bleak, windswept Heights to the scorched desert of late 18th-century Rajasthan. Here, in India, the turbulent weather conveyed in the Yorkshire word "wuthering" is translated into sandstorms that blast not a heath but a simple set comprising beige ramps and evocative backdrops cinematically lit to convey epic landscapes. Against this background, Brontë's tale of fate, destiny and duty – aspects of Wuthering Heights which Hindu society would recognise all too clearly – is peppered with references to spirituality, dance sequences and a catchy soundtrack by Felix Cross and Sheema Mukherjee.
The musical opens in a market with camels dotted across the horizon and the tale unfolds through the words of a wanderer carrying a sacred urn. It doesn't take long before Shakuntala has fallen for Krishan whom her father Singh has brought home from the slums. You don't need to identify Brontë's characters since the story unfolds in a perfectly accessible way from whatever culture you approach it. For rigid Victorian values and snobbery, read stringent Indian hierarchies; for complicated, contradictory Bollywood heroine, see feisty, single-minded Yorkshire lass. Kristine Landon-Smith's take on Brontë owes as much to the 1939 film with Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon as to the novel. But was it fanciful also to detect echoes of Bernard Herrmann's opera? The Bollywood melodrama is kept firmly in check, thanks to the sensitive characterisation of Pushpinder Chani as the Heathcliff character of Krishan opposite Youkti Patel, a vivid Shakuntala (Catherine Earnshaw).
In true Bollywood style, the songs have been pre-recorded in India so that the cast has the additional challenge of lip-synching to some of Bollywood's finest professional playback singers.
Verma has spiced up the English with some humour and incorporated a number of Hindi phrases so that the dialogue comes across more authentically in the genre of Bollywood. It certainly adds an exotic touch.
With a cast of just 11, the director, Kristine Landon-Smith, is hard-pushed to create the kind of all-singing, all-dancing line-up found in a Bollywood extravaganza. However she succeeds in drawing big-hearted performances and if busy market and grand party scenes – and the camel race – seem sparsely peopled, they are handsomely costumed and subtly choreographed.
The pace of the production isn't exactly fast but it seldom drags, the action evolving fluidly. It's no time at all before we're on the banks of the Ganges, spectators at Shakuntala's funeral pyre. The urn on the stranger's back, it becomes clear, contains the fettered spirit of his beloved Shakuntala. Cue another sandstorm into which Baba the narrator disappears, to emerge drifting in the breeze in a pretty "picturisation" as young Krishan is reunited with the freed spirit of Shakuntala. "Shukar he Bhagwan ka" (Thanks be to God) says Ayah (Nelly Dean, of course). It's an imaginative perspective on a great classic and one that, with a little reworking, could surely transfer to the big screen with the same success as Tamasha's East is East.
To 28 March (0161 624 2829) then touring, including Lyric Hammersmith, London W6 (0871 22 117 29), 29 April to 23 May