Evening Standard
3 stars out of 5
The Empress at the Lyric Hammersmith review: fantastic actors can’t stop a fascinating subject falling flat
There’s a lot of history to cover here, and this retelling falls too often into the trap of obviousness

Nick Curtis

Tanika Gupta’s broad-strokes play about the Indian diaspora in Victorian London, first staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2013, was ahead of the current curve in interrogating Britain’s colonial legacy. It tells the story of Queen Victoria’s tendresse for her servant-turned teacher Abdul Karim, alongside an almost Dickensian narrative of a young ayah (an Indian nanny, hired by wealthy British families) abandoned in London, seduced and impregnated, but rising through resourcefulness to rub shoulders with pioneers of independence.
The subject matter is compelling, the execution pedestrian. Pooja Ghai’s revival, again for the RSC, falls into the company’s default house style: gurning, caterwauling groups of proles juxtaposed with solemn figures intoning the serious bits. Fortunately, the acting is good.
Alexandra Gilbreath is a spirited, jovial, oddly modern Victoria, prone to fruity chuckles: Gupta gives the monarch an easy ride, framing her as a closet egalitarian. Designer Rosa Maggiora often places the Queen literally in one of two picture frames beside a central, gilded circle, indicative of the crown or the Empire, perhaps. Gilbreath’s is a scene-stealing performance but mostly you keep watching this almost three-hour narrative because of Tanya Katyal’s performance as the ayah, Rani.

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