Stephanie Frances OBrien
Based largely on fact, The Last Maharajah, a new musical premiring at Hoxton Hall, tells the story of Dalip Singh, the last Sikh ruler of the Punjab. Following the surrender of his kingdom to the British, he laments his losses, and his desire to regain the Kohinoor diamond causes him to ride roughshod over everything else including his wife, and the music hall star, Kitty Vaughan.
Performed appropriately enough in an original nineteenth century music hall, the show is presented as an evening at Leicester Squares Alhambra Theatre, its Chairman introducing each part of the drama as he might the next musical number. Here we see Kitty Vaughan (Annabel Bates) falling for Singh, and a subsequent conflict emerge between Kitty, who recognises that the glamour of the stage is never real, and Singh, whose ambitions are ultimately fantasies, but who believes he can actually fulfil them. It is a thematically rich, and frequently dramatic, show, but one where almost every aspect has its own strengths and weaknesses.
At its heart is an exploration of the different things that make people tick. To Singh the Kohinoor diamond is everything, far more important to him than Kitty or even the death of her friend. At the other extreme, Kitty does not even want to see the jewel when presented with it. To her, people and friendships are more important than a mere possession, no matter how valuable. Given this, however, why Singh should ever have fallen for her at all is never fully explained. She is attracted by his status and wealth before seeing the light, but, given his underlying mentality, there seems little reason for him to have been entranced by her.
Ziggy de Voights music and Jackson B. Sutcliffes lyrics were reasonable, but the clear attempt to emulate the music hall style too often failed to do more than produce a weak pastiche of the sound from that classic era. The formulation of the lyrics enabled them to be delivered fairly slickly, but the points made with the words lacked subtlety. Neither the music nor the lyrics were bad, but it was hard to see them being of sufficient standard to grace a West End stage.
Similarly the standard of acting varied considerably. Director, David Phipps-Davis, stole the show as Dalip Singh, with some superlative acting and strong singing. He stepped in to play the role relatively late in the day, but as a consequence we saw a leading man working in complete harmony with his director, with everyone else rather trailing in his wake. Notwithstanding several parts that demanded older actors, the cast was generally young and on the night few could live with such an old pro as Phipps-Davis, though some clearly have bright futures. Indeed, notable exceptions to this rule were Ilan Shefer as Chairman of the Alhambra, and Carl Knighton as the Fenian in exile, Patrick Casey, who in particular demonstrated a great maturity in his acting.
The Last Maharajah has much to merit it and, since it can be performed with just a piano played, in this instance, by musical director, Leo Nicholson I can see schools and amateur groups embracing it. It does, however, also have a sizeable number of weaknesses, and these will almost certainly, unless some considerable work is done to it, be enough to prevent it from moving to more prestigious London venues than Hoxton Hall.