Laila – The Musical review at Watford Palace Theatre – ‘ambitious’
Hard on the heels (and the saris) of Bend It Like Beckham, it’s a pleasure to welcome another original British Asian musical to the stage, even if my enthusiasm for Laila is a little more tempered.
While Bend It caught the pulse of a contemporary multi-cultural London with a free-flowing, sophisticated vivacity, Laila aims for a more earnest re-telling of an ancient Persian story (dating originally from the seventh century) that’s been dubbed the ‘Romeo and Juliet of the east,’ though it pre-dates Shakespeare by 700 years.
There’s a lot of cultural weight to this story of star-crossed lovers Laila and Majnu, whose families disapprove, forcing her into an arranged marriage with another instead. It has frequently been adapted for the screen in India and Pakistan, and even formed the basis of a Turkish TV comedy series. Now it’s been turned into a Western musical hybrid. There’s the heavy hand of Lloyd Webber and Schonberg balladry in regular Bollywood composer Summeet Chopra’s score. Benjamin Holder’s band includes a sufi singer and Indian percussion player, giving the music an Asian undercurrent, supplemented by additional click tracks.
Director Pravesh Kumar’s book and Dougal Irvine’s lyrics have an intentionally naive rather than knowing quality, in which the sincerity of the storytelling is key. But there’s not quite enough dramatic tension to sustain the momentum; there are few surprises, though Cressida Carre’s choreography and the billowing silk screens regularly employed provide visual diversion.
Mona Goodwin is ardent and committed in the title role, with Reece Bahia and Surrender ‘Shin’ Singh Parwana in strong support as the two men she is torn between.