Merchants of Bollywood: Peacock Theatre, London, 25 May 2016

You don’t have to take your clothes off to have a good time

Merchants of Bollywood. This colours in this picture have been toned down to protect your eyes. Photo by Nigel Norrington

Merchants of Bollywood. The colours in this picture have been toned down to protect your eyes. Photo by Nigel Norrington

Sometimes you just have to hold your hands up and say ‘That was so much fun!’. More than hold your hands up, in fact; punch them in the air, make little ok signs near the eyes or twirl your wrists around like falling raindrops. Merchants of Bollywood is a Bollywood movie brought live to the stage with all the colour, pizzazz, ludicrous acting and audacious dancing that entails.

Sure, the second half suffers from a melodramatic plot and the fact that the big finale It’s the Time to Disco is one of the weaker numbers of the show but the sheer invention, energy and joy of the first half stays with you well into the night.

It doesn’t give the audience any breathing space. Dancers strut on, chug-a-chug-ahoo a bit, spin off, leap back on, drive jeeps, pretend to be elephants, ride hobby horses, break into hip-hop and throw in a bit of classical, kathak and belly-dance for the sheer hell of it. And every time they re-appear on stage they’re wearing a new bling-encrusted costume.

Behind them vast video screens project stripy blocks of neon colours, roaring fires, sparkling stars and giant pulsating love hearts. The flashing lighting rig beats down on them from above and also wanders frequently into the crowd. This is not a show that’s easily ignored.

Big ensemble number follows big ensemble number, the choreography as complex and tight as the paying of a large restaurant bill. The sheer sweep of movement is breathtaking, as is the speed with which it’s accomplished and the fine detail it includes.

The dancers’ only respite comes with the narration and over-acted story of the acrimonious divide within the Merchant family (big choreographic wheels in Bollywood) that culminates in the reconciliation of tradition with the modern world. There are some genuinely funny moments, along with some decent topical gags (especially from Arif Zakaria as the fabulously sleazy director Tony Bakshi), and some interesting nuggets of information about the Indian film industry but the long-winded attempts at pathos fall flat and simply slow the production down.

But pah to that, it was the dancing and the bombast of the songs that we wanted and we got it by the bucket-load. Brilliant!

Merchants of Bollywood runs at London’s Peacock Theatre until 11 June 2016. Tickets can be found on the Sadler’s Wells website.

Gerard Davis

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