Back in 2020 a certain so-called actor, whose name I will not mention, complained that a First World War film that included an Indian soldier was tantamount to being ‘institutionally racist.’ I confess I was as unaware as he of the sheer numbers of Indian, and especially Sikh, men who fought and died in the war, but unlike the unnamed actor I then took the time to educate myself a little on the subject. However, I still approached India Gate with just a passing knowledge of the depth of the country’s war contribution, and of its fight for independence from the British Empire.
The great thing about theatre is its ability to both entertain and educate in equal measures, and that is what India Gate did. Over a well-paced 75 minutes it flew through not just India’s war contribution, but the stories of Sir Edwin and Lady Emily Lutyens, Udham Singh, and the building of The All India War Memorial, otherwise known as The India Gate.
First things first: Questors Theatre really is a luxury to have on your doorstep. The Judi Dench Playhouse is spacious and with its banked (and very comfy) seating you aren’t going to miss a thing. OK, as an amateur theatre it doesn’t offer the range that the fringe does generally, but it is certainly worthy of a visit, especially when you can drive and park right outside its front door.
Tonight’s play was a joint venture between Questors Theatre and The Punjabi Theatre Academy, which meant we had quite a range of actors on stage. And yes, some stood out more than others, but all gave everything to their roles, with none proving detrimental to the performance. A special nod though to Rajeev Soni, who gave a powerful and emotional portrayal of Udham Singh, the man who assassinated Lieutenant Governor Michael O’Dwyer in revenge for his involvement in the Amritsar massacre of 1919. Additionally, for their humour that felt almost like a nod to Goodness Gracious Me, Ben Sura and Anoop Jagan were standouts.
What of the play as a whole? Over 15 compact scenes it flew through a very light history of India and some of the key moments that would eventually lead to the country’s independence in 1947. As director Howard Shepherdson says in a recent interview with ET, the play is never intended as a documentary but is rather about storytelling and the real people involved. And it works. There is enough included to make you curious to learn more (if you do not already know the history). But Shepherdson also clearly understands where to draw the line, keeping scenes concise and never overloading the audience with too much detail. Is it a fair reflection of the truth then? Well, even the briefest of checks after the show seems to suggest the key dates and moments are very much based in fact, so the play will surely please even those with much deeper understanding.
Come the final scene, while Julian Casey’s rather (intentionally) pompous-looking Lord Mountbatten delivers his speech as India is granted its independence, I think again of the ignorance of a certain second-rate actor. Yes, I was as guilty as him for not realising the contribution India made to the war nor many other aspects of its history, but I at least want to learn. India Gate is a wonderful play that helps you do that; leaving you curious for more. And Questors Theatre really is a place that should have full houses regularly: why wouldn’t you take advantage of such an amazing venue right on your doorstep?
Written and directed by: Howard Shepherdson
Associate DIrector: Tajinder Sindra
Produced by: The Questors Theatre and The Punjabi Theatre Academy
India Gates plays at The Questors Theatre until 7 May. Further information and bookings can be found here.