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. 

Curious Incident wins record-tying seven prizes at Oliver Awards 2013

The National Theatre's production The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time wins seven prizes at Olivier Awards (Credit: Manuel Harlan)

The National Theatre’s production The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time wins seven prizes at Olivier Awards (Credit: Manuel Harlan)

National Theatre production The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time has dominated this year’s Olivier Awards, picking up seven out of the eight prizes it was nominated for – tying with the record amount of wins secured by Matilda The Musical at last year’s ceremony.

Curious Incident picked up awards for its acting, with accolades for Luke Treadaway as best actor and Nicola Walker as best supporting actress, as well as for its technical aspects, coming away with prizes for best sound design, best set design and best lighting design. It also scooped the top prizes of the night, winning best new play and best director for Marianne Elliott.

Other productions awarded at this year’s ceremony included The Audience, with Helen Mirren and Richard McCabe coming away with prizes for best actress and best supporting actor; Chichester Festival Theatre’s production of Sweeney Todd, picking up prizes for best musical revival and best actor and actress in a musical for leads Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton; and Top Hat, which received a hat-trick of accolades for best new musical, best costume design and best theatre choreographer.

For the full list of winners, visit www.olivierawards.com

National Theatre: Port – Performance review

Star rating
***
A fantastic lead character takes you on an interesting journey,
but the drive of the narrative means it lacks some heart

Kate O'Flynn (Racheal Keats) and Mike Noble (Billy Keats) (credit Kevin Cummins)

Kate O’Flynn (Racheal Keats) and Mike Noble (Billy Keats) (credit Kevin Cummins)

Port marks another National Theatre collaboration between playwright Simon Stephens and director Marianne Elliott. Based in Stockport, the play moves through two-year periods in lead character Racheal’s life – spanning from ages 11 to 24, with each of the eight scenes providing a snapshot of where her beginnings in Stockport have taken her.

The earlier scenes work best: Racheal and her brother Billy sitting in a hospital canteen doing their homework as they await news of their dying Grandad, reveals the damaged relationship between Racheal and her father, and the appearance of her father’s rather creepy friend, known as the local flasher, provides an insight to the realities of Racheal’s upbringing. It gives you just enough information to understand the context without slowing down the pace.

The biggest jump, in terms of story, comes between Racheal working in a supermarket as a teen, to a New Year’s Eve party where, now in her 20s, Racheal’s  fiercely jealous and violent husband is first unveiled to the audience.

While the gritty scene between husband and wife was engaging, it felt as if there was a hole in the context. There were many moments of quiet at the start of this scene, which were most likely intended to display the tension between the couple, but having not known anything about Kevin before this scene, the quiet almost felt like first-date awkwardness: not at all where the scene heads. The need to move the story on seems to mean skipping some important emotional landmarks in Racheal’s life.

What was most enjoyable about Port was Kate O’Flynn’s performance – she managed the difficult transition from an excitable 11-year-old nattering non-stop to her mother to a 24-year-old damaged divorcee, with unfathomable ease. At no point did I question the realness of her character. O’Flynn made Racheal likeable and human – you don’t empathise with Racheal out of pity, but out of the sheer boldness of her character. Mike Noble’s Billy also contains a similar warmth and complexity.

Port presents some interesting issues through real, unshiny, lifelike characters you might even recognise from your hometown. But for me, personally, a really good play is one which stays with me on the journey home: when I wonder about the characters and what might of happened to them … I can’t say I felt this way about Port. Perhaps a few more moments where the audience could get inside the heads of the characters a bit more, rather than tracing the narrative, would have brought some more heart to this journey.

Port runs at the National Theatre until 24 March 2013. To find out more information, or to buy tickets, visit www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/port

Rachel Creaser is the editorial assistant for Teaching Drama.