Writer and Director: Pravesh Kumar
Composer: Sumeet Chopra
Lyricist: Dougal Irvine
Reviewer: Paul Couch
In this, the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, it is perhaps fitting that a work that inspired him has been re-imagined for a modern-day audience.
Laila The Musical is cleverly bookended with modern scenes to create a contemporary frame but its core narrative is based in Antiquity and tells the story of royal princess Laila (Mona Goodwin) who falls in love with chancer/bad-boy Qays (Reece Bahia). Given the yawning difference in their social standing and the fact that they’re from warring factions, the chances that their liaison is going to end badly is pretty much predictable from the start but young love will have its day no matter what the consequences.
The Universe being what it is, of course, happiness is eventually balanced out by tragedy, even in this frothiest of stories, and the characters must stop the hatred and mistrust of the past from repeating themselves. Between the dancing and torch songs, there is inevitably bloodshed.
What is most interesting about Laila the Musical is that this steps outside of the norms of what we have come to expect. As a western audience, often our only engagement with Asian culture will most likely be those Bollywood epic movies that might involve horror, high-octane car chases or fist-fights but which stop for no apparent reason so that the characters can enjoy a perfectly choreographed Bhangra dance routine. While there are nods to familiar and traditional dance forms in Leila, these are contextual and in no way detract from the gripping narrative.
In an interview back in March with The Reviews Hub writer and director Pravesh Kumar stated that he had revisited Laila Manju (Laila and the Madman) as “Sufi Pop-Meets-Western-Musical”. Sumeet Chopra’s score is reminiscent of Abba’s Mamma Mia!. It doesn’t pretend to be cerebrally challenging; it oils the wheels of this feelgood romp, the earliest incarnation of the tale of illicit love, which was already 700 years old before being brought down the Spice Road and repurposed by Shakespeare.
Chopra’s melodies and arrangements shift effortlessly from eastern to western influence and back again while the cast’s powerful vocals carry the audience along on Laila and Qays’ journey.
If there is any criticism at all, it is with some of Dougal Irvine’s lyrics, which tend towards the pedestrian at times, particularly in the Act One songs – surprising, as Irvine is an award-winning lyricist of some renown. It’s not the most heinous of crimes – even Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson’s lyrical structures don’t stand up to close scrutiny in the same way their complex music does, but one does yearn for more sophisticatedmetersin the earlier numbers.
Philip Gladwell’s lighting design is nothing short of exquisite, while Libby Watson’s simple set (much scaled down for the New Wolsey stage) is elegant and atmospheric.
There are some very minor irritations – the distinctly 21st Century footwear and a single-shot flintlock pistol that manages to dispatch three characters one after the other without a reload – but we can forgive the production those flaws because the rest of it is so outstandingly good.
Kumar’s baby will probably not have the longest of shelf lives but what is more important in the here and now is that it provides and accessible channel for western audiences, both wholly indigenous and those of south-east Asian heritage, to appreciate and immerse themselves in some glorious retelling of tales that are largely unknown in the West.
Laila the Musicalis a wonderful, evocative fusion of south Asian and Western cultures. The po-faced London cognoscenti will hate its childlike innocence but, frankly, that’s their loss.
Runs until 30 April 2016 then continues to tour | Image:David Fisher