Review: A Passage to India at Liverpool Playhouse

Photo: Idil Sukan

By Nigel Smith

A PASSAGE to India is a hefty piece of writing, and this stage version adapted by Simon Dormandy (who also co-directs with Sebastian Armesto) necessarily abridges and condenses the novel quite severely.

The result has the effect of skimming the surface of the narrative in frequent places, and there is a feeling that we are almost witnessing the story from a fast moving train rather than taking in the view along the way.

The staging is kept simple, with a backdrop standing within a black-draped stage. The entire cast (including musicians) are onstage almost continually throughout, except when departing for a costume change, and they watch the action from the wings with an air of censure. There is also minimum use of props, apart from a collection of bamboo staffs, with which the actors create many of the settings.

The stylised manner of presentation works well, and some recurring devices such as the work with the staffs and some susurrating ensemble vocals create an atmospheric and sometimes eerie feel. Particularly effective is the musical score by Kuljit Bhamra, in which two very different sound worlds, one terribly English and the other distinctly Indian, mingle together but never feel entirely at ease with each other.

This sonic undercurrent underscores the relationships between the two cultures, and the unease is palpable throughout. The idea that “it’s impossible to make friends with the English” is heavily emphasised, and many of the characterisations, both English and Indian, at times feel rather stereotyped, but the cast more or less universally do a great job of delivering some awkward dialogue.

In moving the story along there are numerous passages of narration delivered directly to the audience and, while the production has a sense of very deliberate theatricality, these break the spell woven by the ensemble work. The pacing is uneven, with some scenes rattling along too quickly to be properly appreciated and others sagging somewhat, especially in the drawn out latter part of the play.

Despite these reservations, A Passage to India is a well crafted piece of work with fine solo and ensemble performances. It’s stylishly done and succeeds in encapsulating the spirit of Forster’s novel, if not entirely its sweep.

This touring production from Simple8 Theatre and Royal & Derngate Northampton is at the Playhouse until 10th February. It then spends a week in Bromley before finishing its run with a month at London’s Park Theatre.