Immortalised in the books of authors like Kipling and Forster, British India has become a staple of our literary heritage. Between Empires, then, explores well-trodden ground. It examines Anglo-Indian relations through the prism of a love affair between an aristocratic local girl and a naive British officer at the turn of the 19th century. The familiarity of the setting is both a blessing and a burden: while this production does a brilliant job of evoking the subcontinent, it frequently edges dangerously close to cringeworthy cliché.
The production values of the musical cannot be faulted. Mixing spoken word and singing in the style of Les Miserables, Between Empires is bursting with the same kind of frenzied activity as the best stage adaptations of Hugo's masterpiece. The cast make good use of the limited space available to them by filling it with action, excellently conjuring up a wedding party or a busy market. This sense of place is also helped by the costumes. From glitzy Indian turbans to the polished black riding boots of the British soldiers, the cast definitely looks the part.
Solid musical accompaniment is provided by a range of Western and Eastern instruments. The cello and violin blend well with the tabla (Indian drum) and Hindustani interludes sung by Kartik Raghunathan. Some of the strongest numbers are those involving the whole cast, with complex harmonies and complicated dance routines contributing once again to the drama of the setting.The problem with all of this, though, is that regardless of how good the production itself is, it will inevitably suffer if the story and lyrics aren't up to scratch. The plot is at best predictable and at worst prosaic. All the bases are covered, complete with a slimy Indian servant and a comparably malign British officer.
The couple's forbidden love affair is considered with a similar lack of subtlety. A wooden frame divides them for most of the performance, a metaphor so hackneyed that it's barely worth mentioning. Anala, the lovesick heroine, sings longingly of 'living the fairytales' she reads in books and of being 'a caged bird.' What was a strong technical performance by Claire-Marie Hall ended up being undermined by all this kitsch.
This is a shame, as with a better plot and more thoughtful lyrics, Between Empires could be a thoroughly engaging piece of musical theatre. For now, it seems destined to remain a technically excellent hour and a half of theatre, though one that is ultimately rather boring.