Laila The Musical (Watford Palace Theatre)

Rifco’s new musical is a beguiling take on the star-crossed lovers story

Two star-crossed lovers from warring families who battle to be together against all odds: sound familiar? You may be surprised to learn that it’s not Romeo and Juliet. This is Laila and Majnu, an ancient Persian tale of love that predates Shakespeare‘s tragedy by about, ooooh, 1,000 years. It’s little known in the west – although you’ll probably have heard reference to it in Eric Clapton’s song 'Layla' – and it’s now been made into a new musical by British Asian theatre company Rifco.

So instead of Verona, we lay our scene in the ancient deserts of the east. Laila is the daughter of a rich family, while Qays belongs to a poor merchant tribe. When Laila turns 18 she begins to question why she's kept within her palace's walls. So, a little like Aladdin‘s Jasmin, she sneaks out into the bazaar and bumps into, you guessed it, Qays. From that moment on they are inseparable. And, much like in its 16th century counter-part, their meeting causes unending heartache, death and pain. So much so that Qays – who cannot be apart from his love – is eventually dubbed Majnu, or madman.

The bare bones of the story may be familiar, but if you think you will have seen it all before then you’re mistaken. It's easy to get wound up anew in Pravesh Kumar’s fresh, exciting, hugely atmospheric production. Using a framing device set today in Bradford, the piece highlights themes still relevant of control of women and the freedom to love and marry who we choose.

Kumar’s script is haunted by rolling dunes and the bustle of markets. Andy Kumar’s costumes are brightly beguiling, if touched with a little too much panto, and Libby Watson’s smart designs use simple waves of silk which undulate over the action. The silks help in several practical ways with some slick scene changes but they also imbue the action with a real sense of magic. It adds to the sense of unseen powers – here not fate but Allah – pushing these two young spirits together.

Kumar’s intentions were to marry Eastern and Western music styles and he places Sufi musicians at the heart of the piece, playing live from the back of the stage, who play traditional sounds alongside much rockier numbers. There is an excellent balance between the two styles. Surrinder Singh Parwana, a successful singer as well as an actor, plays several roles within the musical and has a transporting voice that works in whichever way he sings. The tracks, written by Sumeet Chopra with lyrics by Dougal Irvine are catchy and varied. I loved "Laila and her Majnu": all the tragedy of the young lovers is embodied in that one song alone. There are a couple of misfires – "Do Not Throw Stones at My Madman" is over-cooked, but in general the songs are great.

The ensemble cast are also strong, with a convincing turn from Mona Goodwin as Laila, whose voice is wonderfully rich. Reece Bahia’s Qays is endearingly cheeky although he doesn’t quite make the full transition from ladies man to someone driven mad by one woman. But that's forgivable: Laila The Musical is a joyful experience, a genuinely strong new musical that deserves to be played up and down the country.

Laila – The Musical runs at Watford Palace Theatre until 17 April and then tours.