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. 

Frantic Assembly, Lovesong Review

Here’s another chance to read our review from Autumn 2 of Frantic Assembly’s Lovesong.  In our forthcoming issue, out 20 December, we talk to the Frantic Assembly team about why education is so important to their company. Get your copy at http://www.pocketmags.com or subscribe at http://www.teaching-drama.co.uk.

Production review:  Frantic Assembly – Lovesong 

Star Rating * * * * (4/5)

Credit: Johan Persson

A slick, emotional journey charting a relationship heading towards a goodbye. More suitable for KS5.

Frantic Assembly take a slightly slower and more sentimental pace than their usual work with Lovesong. The production looks at the life of a relationship from either end, as a pair of younger and a pair of older actors co-habit the same space. We hear their changing conversations from initial excitement, to growing tension and later a sad, foreboding sense of looming loss, as Maggie grows frail with a worsening illness, the sentiment of the tag-line becomes more and more apparent: ‘That is the story of our beginning. And this is the story of…the end’.

The parallel couples share the house as the same kitchen and bedroom walls surround their voices as they grow old together. Theatrically, we dart back and forth through time and the slick direction allows the action to move seamlessly across the decades. At one stage, the older Maggie leans into the wardrobe and remerges played by her younger counterpart. There are brief, wonderful moments where the older characters become aware of their younger selves for a fleeting instant and vice versa, moments which hinge the scenes more and more frequently as the piece develops. Engaging and fluid physical sections, a trademark of Frantic Assembly’s style, move time forward and explore the shifts in the relationship in a beautiful and moving manner. The most memorable saw all four performers disappearing and re-emerging, accompanied by rhythmic music and powerful drum beats which gradually gave way to the sound of Maggie crying, her sobs bringing us back to the reality of her physical pain.

The design of the show and its aesthetic congruence, for me, even outdoes these dignified and integrative performances. The jade green, sky blue and mustard set and costumes were authentic and retrospective. Large, wallpapered, oblong pillars, set at angles at the back of the set were the walls of the rooms of the house and acted as a cyclorama for well-designed and evocative video projection. This allowed imagery and symbolism within Abi Morgan’s text to rise to the surface. The relationship between the performers and these images was exquisite, at one stage, the old man clutches the air as if trying to grab onto one of a flock of starlings that frequently passes over the set and at another, one of the characters touches her kitchen wall as sparks of light radiate from her fingertips to fill the whole space. The production triumphed in its painting of stage pictures that stay with you after leaving the theatre: the older Billy and Maggie sat at the kitchen table, the younger William and Margaret sat on the floor against their bed, surrounded by the heads of hundreds of flowers as the starlings cross the pillars once more.

At the time of going to print, the educational pack was not yet available. However, it can’t be far off and Frantic Assembly is renowned for good quality, accessible resources that are downloadable from their website. Seeing this show made me wish my students were with me. There was so much to get from this experience – a good discussion about the performances (frequently powerful and sensitive, and I’m sure that as they settle into the run and subsequent tour, they will overcome some verbal awkwardness evident on this opening night), an appreciation of how to use design elements in an harmonious way (in order to transport us in time and place and tug at our heartstrings) and an understanding of how a performer can use one’s body and its contact with others to communicate non-verbally. At the end of the performance, I wasn’t in tears as many other audience members were, but, nevertheless, felt touched by the story and the way in which it was told so eloquently.

Lovesong – directed by Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett
Frantic Assembly are touring until February 2012.
For more information and to book tickets: www.franticassembly.co.uk/productions/lovesong

by David Duthie.

David Duthie trained in drama and for his PGCE at University of Wales, Aberystwyth. He was the head of drama and performing arts in in Shropshire for six years. He is now the director at The SPACE in Somerset.