Taj Express, Sadler’s Wells, London ★★★½

Reviewed for The Reviews Hub:

It is not usual, one must admit, for a stage show to start with a voiceover warning that anybody expecting great theatre should leave. There are certainly some shows that could benefit from such a management of expectations. Taj Express, the latest Bollywood-inspired work from the Merchant family, is at least in part trying to poke fun at the film genre. We know, the voiceover implies, that the audience appreciates that Bollywood films are not high art – but they can be tremendous fun. And it is that spirit which Taj Expresscaptures.

As one would expect for a show being mounted at Sadlers Wells’s West End venue, the emphasis of Taj Express is on dance. Principal performers Hiten Shah and Tanvi Patil are backed up by a 18-piece ensemble, who really make their presence felt in the plentiful numbers that epitomise the high-energy synchronised routines that Bollywood has made its own.

Like many Bollywood musicals, classic Indian dance styles sit comfortably along moves that originated in Western dance culture. Elements of tango, foxtrot and cha-cha work well, while sequences of contemporary and street dance demonstrate how Indian-originated choreography has infused those styles in a truly cosmopolitan manner.

in the world of the stage musical, Taj Express is a Bollywood musical that is being scored by first-time composer Shankar (Mikhail Sen) as it is begin rewritten. Shah and Patil, the film’s romantic leads – he a charity worker on the streets of Mumbai, she a Bollywood star – fall in love during a chance encounter, and escape the city to ride the Taj Express railway line on a journey of spiritual and romantic enlightenment.

Harangued by the film’s commercially-minded producer, Shankar yearns to expand the possibilities of what Bollywood music can be, in the manner of his hero, A. R. Rahman, the composer whose crossover work on Slumdog Millionaire brought him to the attention of Western audiences. The score for Taj Express leans heavily on Rahman’s work – including both Jai Ho and the superior O Saya’ from Slumdog – and that of other Bollywood composers, whose work is weaved among the original compositions by Abhijit Vaghani.

And so, while acknowledging the occasionally shaky plots and production values of some Bollywood films, Taj Express also seeks to venerate its best quality: dance and music. Mixing music from an onstage three-piece band with a plethora of prerecorded tracks, the effect is as well achieved as it is self-defeating: much as Toby Gough’s script may pretend that the film being made is badly produced tat, the effort and enthusiasm of everyone on stage runs counter to that.

In fact, the weakest parts of the production are found not in the dance, nor in the heightened, formulaic melodrama of the story-within-a-story, but in Gough’s framing device. Sen is an engaging performer, but his over-earnest monologues feel as if they’re walking at a different pace to the rest of the show – rather than providing a breathing space between high energy routines, they often threaten to suffocate the show’s infectious atmosphere.

Far more successful is Chandan Raina as Shankar’s bolshy session guitarist, Flash. Always on hand to puncture the composer’s earnest demeanour, Raina is a dab hand at breaking the fourth wall and having fun with the audience. Indeed, with his comedy timing and penchant for encouraging audience participation, he helps emphasise Taj Express’ best quality – that it is, in effect, a celebration of Bollywood in the grand tradition of British pantomime: a flimsy fairytale story framing a succession of sequinned dance moves, and a character that can also act as a piss-taking MC. There’s even a comedy bit right at the end to give the principals enough time to change for the closing walk down.

If that comparison with panto rankles, perhaps it’s because Taj Express itself can’t quite decide what it wants to be: the knowing wink with which it opens often goes missing throughout the show. The opening voiceover is right to suggest it is not ‘great theatre’ – but as a celebration of the joy and spirit of Bollywood, it doesn’t need to be.

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