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A Passage to India (Susan Elkin reviews)

EM Forster’s most famous novel, based on the author’s observations in India, firmly damns colonisation and colonisers. If anything, Simon Dormandy’s adaption – nearly a century after the novel was published in 1924 – condemns the Raj even more unflinchingly.

Mrs Moore and Adela Quested are in India visiting Mrs Moore’s son, the local magistrate to whom Adela will soon be engaged, The relationship with local educated Indians is unequal and uneasy but Dr Aziz is determined to make friends. The famous “incident” in the Malabar caves puts him on trial, the outcome of which pleases nobody. It’s a popular novel, often set for A level and of course David Lean’s 1984 film introduced it to many people too.

In this version – from Royal and Derngate, Northampton – fifteen performers, including three musicians, form an ensemble which tells the story on an almost bare stage. The costumes are evocative and in period (it’s set before the First World War) but props are minimal.

This show runs on physicality and there are some fine theatrical moments such as the scenes in which the whole cast present echoes in chorus. India was and is a mysterious, mystic place and there are many echoes both literal and metaphysical which are made much of here. Then there’s the ensemble turning itself into a elephant, a boat, a train or a pair of horses. And long poles, one for each cast member, form a range of symbolic barriers. It’s enjoyably imaginative stuff.

Also highly atmospheric is Kuljit Bhamra’s music played on an Indian cello, flute and by the composer on very colourful percussion on a side balcony above stage left.

Liz Crowther puts in some finely nuanced work as Mrs Moore, determined, troubled, kind, reasonable and eventually just wanting to go home. Asif Khan is spot on as Aziz – enthusiastic, decent at heart but gratingly inappropriate as he struggles, and fails, to meet the British on their own terms. And Nigel Hastings is excellent as the angry, dictatorial Turton, appalling by today’s standards but probably respected by his employers back in London in his own time. The whole cast is well gelled and it is in the ensemble scenes that this show really comes to life.

It is, however, too long by at least half an hour. I’ve always thought that Forster’s novel was floppily structured and Dormandy’s attempt to give it more shape strays dangerously close to protracted self indulgence as it proceeds. There are more false endings to the whole play even than to the song sung by Ranjit Krishnamma as Gobole to good comic effect in the first half.


First published by Sardines

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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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