The Empress – Lyric Hammersmith Theatre, London

Reviewer: Stephen Bates

Writer: Tanika Gupta

Director: Pooja Ghai

With our Government warning us of an imminent “hurricane” of immigrants, it is worth taking time to reflect on historic attitudes towards those who are seeking to build new lives in the United Kingdom. Tanika Gupta’s new drama, transferring from the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, charts the progress of a group, travelling on a ship arriving in England from India in 1887, whose lives become intertwined.

Rani is a 16-year-old, employed as a nursemaid to a wealthy English family who is returning home. Immediately upon arrival, the family dismisses and abandons her to make her own way in a hostile London. She gains employment with an aristocratic family but soon discovers that the father of the children in her care is making demands on her that go far beyond household duties and she finds herself back on the streets. Eventually, she becomes the assistant to an Indian politician who is striving to become a Member of the British Parliament. Tanya Katyal is captivating as Rani, transforming from an innocent victim into a confident young woman who is capable of fulfilling her own dreams.

Arriving on the same ship is Abdul, sent as a Golden Jubilee gift to Queen Victoria, Empress of India. Many will already be familiar with the friendship that develops from the 2017 film Victoria and Abdul, but the story is re-told here touchingly with Raj Bajaj making a proud Abdul and Alexandra Gilbreath a stubborn and enlightened monarch. The establishment opposition to this friendship is voiced by a stern lady-in-waiting, Lady Sarah (Francesca Faraday).

Backed by the considerable resources of the Royal Shakespeare Company, director Pooja Ghai’s lively production has an epic quality that contrasts beautifully with the intimate nature of the stories being told. Designer Rosa Maggiora’s striking two-level set allows the Empress to oversee her subjects and her vibrant costumes accentuate differences between two cultures. Musical compositions by Ben and Max Ringham add much colour and energy when performed by a company of 18 actors and five musicians.

Gupta does not need to remind us of the modern day relevance of her play, but she packs the drama with savage indictments for the crimes of imperialism and the injustices caused by racism and class divisions. However, the messaging is wrapped carefully inside stories of friendship, struggle and an on-off romance between Rani and a sailor from the ship on which she arrived.

Running at almost three hours (including one interval), The Empress does not feel overlong. It makes serious social and political points and it tells human stories, striking a precise balance. Ultimately, it is entertaining and uplifting..

Runs until 28 October 2023

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