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‘The Empress’ – riveting, majestic, moving: a great night out at the theatre… (review)

‘The Empress’ – riveting, majestic, moving: a great night out at the theatre… (review)

One of the theatrical highlights of 2023 has a touch of Bollywood melodrama and offers an engaging and entertaining evening…

By Suman Bhuchar

THE EMPRESS’ – the title of the show is more Queen of Hearts, than the ruler of the realm.

Tanika Gupta’s ‘Upstairs Downstairs’ take on Asian life in the UK in the last years of Queen Victoria’s reign, is an enjoyable and engaging story told in under three-hours.

This fast-paced production directed by Pooja Ghai appears as a Bollywood melodrama underscored with some moving writing.

Queen Victoria (Alexandra Gilbreath) &
Abdul Karim (Raj Bajaj)

Rani, our Empress, finely played by Tanya Katyal, is a young Ayah ditched by her mistress when her ship lands at Tilbury in East London and so begins her adventures and life in Englishstan.

She has already stolen our lascar Hari’s (Aaron Gill), heart but will the course of true love run smoothly.

Gupta’s play is black and white. The English are villains except the working class who have hearts of gold and the Indians are victims – Perfidious Albion at its most evil.

Lord John (Oliver Hembrough) seduces Rani in the vein of a Bollywood villain, so you feel no empathy to his own lost childhood in India, when he yearns to speak Bengali and eat a curry!

Firoza Begum, (a very fine Avita Jay) a more senior and world weary ayah, is fabulous when she takes a turn at speaking English to the visitors at the mission (which is home for destitute ayahs) and very reminiscent of Amitabh Bachchan in his famous speech in ‘Namak Halal’ (1982) about “I can talk English, “I can walk English…” and so on.

Queen Victoria (a marvellous Alexandra Gilbreath) begins as a caricature of herself but then develops into a monarch you begin to care for and while she can be a rebel, it’s only to a point.

Her relationship with Abdul Karim is depicted with love and affection – but history can be cruel; he was turned out by her son, ‘Bertie’, later Edward VII, and the Royal Household, after the Queen’s death.

Simon Rivers makes a stately Dadabhai Naoroji (Liberal Party MP from 1892-1895 in London) and ages well over the course of the plot. His speeches condemning the Boer war sound remarkably contemporary talking about “the war mongering Tory Government” (at that time).

Dadabhai Naoroji (Simon Rivers)

There is a lot of history crammed into this production and so a lot of this is also exposition as the plot goes from 1887, the date of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee to her death in 1901, and it would be great to know how Gupta blends the historical detail into storytelling.

The cast of 18 for the most part speak in their own accents and Rani’s Bengali inflected English works. All the white English actors speak in a type of received pronunciation, so it’s a mixed bag.

The show also features three songs which are difficult to hear, except for the sections about “The White Man’s Burden”.

I enjoyed seeing Chris Nayak as various characters – but Raj Bajaj steals the show, as a confident if slightly pompous Abdul Karim.

The music is great, by Ben and Max Ringham and the detailed set design by Rosa Maggiora is fantastic.

It’s definitely a theatre highlight for this year. Go see!
ACV rating: **** (out of five)

Top picture: Lord John (Oliver Hembrough) and Rani (Tanya Katyal)

All pictures: ©TheRSC/EllieKurttz saw the show at the Lyric Hammersmith (October 4-28), but the show is now back at the Royal Shakespeare Company base in Stratford Upon Avon in the Midlands. (See details below).

The Empress by Tanika Gupta from tomorrow (Wednesday, November 1) until November 18, Swan Theatre, Stratford Upon Avon, Waterside, Stratford Upon Avon CV37 7LS.

More info/booking:

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Written by Asian Culture Vulture