Review: Ishq, Sadlers Wells

It is hard, almost impossible to review Ishq as a piece of theatre independent of the context from which is has come. Ishq is the first ever Sufi Anglo-Punjabi musical, and promises a fusion of classical and modern dance and the blending of poetry and music. Unfortunately, it really does fail to deliver and instead feels confused and disjointed.

Visually, the show has moments of real beauty. The costumes and choreography are beautiful, creating colourful and energetic ensemble numbers. Sadly, these excellent ensemble moments are often overshadowed by the slightly less excellent facets of the production – namely the music.

One of the central faults with this production is that despite being called a musical, there is actually very little live music happening on stage. There is no live band or orchestra and the music is played pre-recorded through the speakers, fading in and out with an unfortunate tinny quality to it. This also means that during several moments when the actors are very obviously pretending to play instruments or mouthing along to songs onstage becomes almost painful to watch. There seemed to be a number of tech issues on press night, with microphones cutting in and out in the middle of songs, giving feedback and rustling against clothing. While obviously these things happen and are forgivable, when they are happening several times in each song it’s something that needs to be addressed seriously as it gives the production a distinctly amateur quality.

What’s more, the vocal performances overall leave a lot to be desired. Credit must be given to Rasheeda Ali who gives the only vocal performance of a genuinely professional standard. While it is hard to hear a lot of the songs, and it seems unfair to generalise, there are several songs that just fall entirely flat with some performers choosing to speak their way through their solos.

The real shame is that the story itself is actually incredibly interesting and the whole production could have been executed so much better. The play is based on a poem telling the story of Heer and Ranjah, a Sufi legend about two lost lovers. The story itself has some really interesting moments exploring the complexities of the Islamic faith, challenging tradition and marrying faith with the idea of freedom, music and female empowerment. Again Ali shines as Heer, a feisty young girl challenging the patriarchal tradition of her family and her faith. Heer is the kind of female character we could do with more of, and it’s a shame that Ali doesn’t get a chance to really show her real talent or shine in a slightly better production.

To the credit of the creators of ‘Ishq’, the musical does something almost entirely new in it’s very visual and very beautiful portrayal of Pakistan and its examination of Sufi Islam. The story itself is interesting and it’s something that could and almost definitely should be worked on and adapted as there is a lot to tap into. Unfortunately, this production doesn’t quite manage that and really falls short of the mark on execution.

Ishq played at Sadlers Wells until September 9.