Peacock Theatre, London – until 2 July 2017
Guest reviewer: Sarah Tinsley
Both celebrating and taking a gentle poke at Bollywood traditions, Taj Express bursts onto the stage in a riot of colour and movement. A vibrantly painted backdrop hangs over the stage, with piercing blue lights reaching their fingers out to the audience. With its exuberant staging and lighting that encourages everyone to get involved, this static scene is a good reflection of the show as a whole.
Meet Shankar. A wannabe composer, following in the footsteps of the legendary A. R. Rahman (who produced music for, among many others, Slumdog Millionaire). But those are some big shoes to fill. His first opportunity comes in the form of the Taj Express, an incredibly cheesy script that exploits every cliché in the book – from lovers meeting in the rain to the street stand-off between hero and villain. It is up to him to create a soundtrack that transcends the familiar tropes and unveils India as we’ve never seen it before.
Which, of course, he eventually manages to pull off. Merging musical styles from rock to rap, the score is vivid and exciting (and, suitably, some of it is in fact composed by A. R. Rahman). We have three exceptionally talented live musicians on stage, which really gives it an authentic feel. While the ‘performance’ of the film continues in front, we see the shadow of the recording studio behind, reminding us of the construction behind musical theatre and film.
The dancing and costumes are – as you would expect – magnificent. Each new scene heralds the arrival of a new variety of swirling fabrics and punchy details, with the lighting beautifully accentuating each one. There are some beautiful moments of subtlety too, with impressive feats of dexterity from both male and female dancers. Each cast member brings their own flavour to the movements. The power and vitality throughout, especially on such a warm evening, was impressive. Each time the performers leap onto the stage, we are given a new treat for the eyes, with impressive choreography by Vaibhavi Merchant, swirling colours and sparkling jewels.
But the show offers a little more than spectacle. Creating a link between audience and production, our main character and the musicians break the fourth wall and chat, interact and encourage the audience. We’re offered insights into the story, the music, and the traditions of the genre, along with a few jokes. This means that the show becomes infinitely more accessible, even if you aren’t a regular Bollywood watcher.
Both the music and the choreography incorporate a range of contemporary and traditional styles, meaning all tastes are catered for. While it’s not one to go and see for subtle plot and characterisation, it’s certainly something that will leave you with your foot tapping and a cheerful disposition as you head back into the night.