National Theatre: The Light Princess – Performance review

Nick Hendrix as Digby and Rosalie Craig as Althea in the National Theatre's The Light Princess

Nick Hendrix as Digby and Rosalie Craig as Althea in the National Theatre’s The Light Princess

Star rating
*****
There are all sorts of reasons to bring students to see this production.
By Sarah Lambie, TD editor

Comparisons are weak for a show which has a beauty all of its own, but to put the National Theatre’s new musical by Tori Amos and Samuel Adamson into context, I am drawn to reference The Wizard of Oz (and, by extension, Wicked) and The Pillowman, by Martin McDonagh, combined in both magic and darkness through the eyes of the brothers Grimm.

In reality, the original core of the story was written by the Victorian Englishman George MacDonald: friend to Charles Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll of Alice in Wonderland. It draws on a rich history of fairy tale – the traditional subject matter of prince and princess, warring kingdoms, indiscriminately evil baddies – but has that dark and human edge that was lost when the Grimms’ and Hans Christian Andersen tales were taken over by Disney. Its emotional heart has depth and truth which are as compelling for an adult audience (almost exclusively so on the press night I attended) as for the young people for whom the piece is ostensibly written.

Amos and Adamson tread the line carefully between the cliché and the seemingly new, and the musical writing helps a good deal in creating a sense that something unexpected is happening here – the orchestration is imaginative, and while there are only really a couple of melodies one takes away after the first hearing, it’s fulfilling musical whole.

Rae Smith’s designs for the production are nothing short of magical, and each new scene finds a different way to draw the audience’s eye around the stage. I suppose it could almost be accused of being distracting, but really I just felt that I ought to come back and see the show again in order to have a good look at the details I’d missed. There is, despite its beauty, no danger of the performances being upstaged by the set, because these too are wonderful: Rosalie Craig in the title role sings beautifully, and apparently effortlessly as well, despite being continually either harnessed to the flies or manhandled around the set by four acrobats whose strength, commitment and discretion gained the biggest cheer of all at the curtain call.

The choreography by Steven Hoggett is understated: this is not a dance show in the way that other musicals are, but as a fan of actors moving around the stage in a way that has been clearly designed (I know that others aren’t), I enjoyed it very much. This is an ensemble of individual actors with individual characters rather than the slightly homogenous sense that one can get from more traditional musical choruses. A central love scene in which the light princess never once touches the ground is also beautifully choreographed, and I found myself wanting it to go on for twice as long.

There are all sorts of reasons to bring students to see this production. While they will often concentrate only on the performances, this also has the potential to be inspirational for young people from the perspectives of direction, writing, composition, and design: set, lighting, and sound. On this latter subject, I must say that this was the third musical I’d seen in a week – one other being an extremely long-running and successful West End show – and the only one of the three in which I could hear without effort, or even downright irritation, every single syllable. A testament to the sound designer, Simon Baker, but also to the quality of the performers and a director (Marianne Elliott, whose recent successes for the National include War Horse and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) who understood, in the minority it would sadly seem, that a microphone on an actor doesn’t negate the need for articulation and clarity. The piece also touches on a number of issues that arise both within drama and in other subjects – equality, fairness, peace, gender and sexual discrimination, conservation and the environment … there is much for students to discuss having watched what began as an ordinary fairy tale.

The audience of which I was a part at its official world premiere gave The Light Princess a standing ovation, and one of which I think it was utterly deserving.

The Light Princess, a new musical, by Tori Amos and Samuel Adamson, playing at the National Theatre until 9 January 2014. 

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