Thursday, 10 October 2013

Theatre review: The Light Princess

A lot of long-awaited projects have been finally making their way to the stage at the National this year; after the Lester/Kinnear/Hytner Othello and before the SRB/Mendes Lear, comes Tori Amos' debut as a composer of musical theatre. With Samuel Adamson she's adapted The Light Princess from a fairytale by George MacDonald. Two warring kingdoms separated by a dangerous forest, Lagobel is rich in gold but plagued by drought, a problem that, as its name suggests, Sealand doesn't have. When Princess Althea of Lagobel (Rosalie Craig) loses her mother, she deals with it by becoming unable to find anything serious again, her lightness of spirit manifesting itself literally as she starts to float. When the same thing happens to Prince Digby of Sealand (Nick Hendrix) he goes the other way and becomes a humourless warrior. When the nations' animosity finally breaks out into war, the two are pitted against each other but, of course, opposites attract.

The woman behind some of the National's biggest hits of recent years, Marianne Elliott directs with Rae Smith designing, and between them they create a visually striking adult fairytale that has all of the resources of the National at its disposal but uses them wisely, opting for creative staging choices as often as it does spectacle.


So obviously having a gravity-defying lead is the show's big challenge, and while wire-work does feature, Craig is more likely to be lifted off the stage by a quartet of acrobats (Owain Glynn, Tommy Luther, Emma Norin and Nuno Silva) holding her up with their feet, suspending her from trees and, in her memorable first entrance, one of them climbing down a bookcase with her strapped to his back. Elliott and choreographer Steven Hoggett have really thought through the way movement works in this universe, so as much effort is put into making it look like walking normally on the ground is unnatural to Althea, when her father (Clive Rowe) attempts to bring her back down to earth before she's ready.


Rosalie Craig is a real star as Althea, full of personality and strong of voice even when she's got an acrobat's foot up her crotch. Hendrix is charming as Digby learns to break through his sadness and embrace life, and proves his talents extend beyond taking his clothes off, to singing too. Although obviously he does take (most of) his clothes off as well. I mean why would you cast him if you're going to waste him? The leading pair are also well-served in their sidekicks, Althea by her best friend Piper (Amy Booth-Steel,) Digby by his brother Llewelyn (Kane Oliver Parry) and the pet falcon Zephyrus (Ben Thompson) who provides the initial link between him and the gravitationally-challenged Althea. Laura Pitt-Pulford as the falconer and Malinda Parris as Lagobel's Serjeant-at-Arms also get to play a significant role as the show goes on and the warring nations start to look past the kings' enmity and get behind their princes' friendlier alternative. And the puppetry used to bring Zephyrus to life also populates the fantasy kingdoms with dragons, cute rats, shagging frogs and - a huge hit with tonight's audience every time they appeared - King Ignacio's (Hal Fowler) rabid devil-dogs.


As a musical, The Light Princess' success probably depends on what you're looking for from it. You're unlikely to come out humming any of the tunes, and many of the songs are samey and go on for too long; but then that's not unusual in through-sung shows. Amos' first venture into musical theatre has succeeded in making the songs tell the story, which is surely the key thing. I've seen people wonder whether the musical is strong enough in itself to have a life in years to come with revivals after Elliott's production. Only time will tell of course; I don't think any of the individual songs are destined to become enduring favourites but the overall package, for the most part, works. And for the time being it's this production that matters, and on its own terms it's rather special, a charming and different night at the theatre.

The Light Princess by Tori Amos and Samuel Adamson, based on a story by George MacDonald, is booking in repertory until the 9th of January at the National Theatre's Lyttelton.

Running time: 2 hours 50 minutes including interval.

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