Although I finished my review of Ghosts first, there’s no doubt in my mind that The Light Princess is the bigger theatrical event – any new musical would be, but this one has the advantage (over Bare, for example) of having Tori Amos write the music and, well, the National Theater to back it. But it really wasn’t on my radar because, well, Tori Amos, and, er, the National Theater – I figured it would be lifeless, pretentious, tedious, and full of boring music.
But, well, I did my usual thing of asking my theater loving friends, “What’s really good right now?” and got an earful about this show from Ought To Be Clowns. He RAVED about it, said he’d seen it several times already, and that if I liked Sondheim, there was a good chance I’d appreciate its non-tune oriented musicality. I was pretty impressed, and with a bit of luck on my side managed to get some 12 quid tickets for opening night. (They were the side seats in the very back of the theater but when I picked them up, they’d been magically upgraded to row F circle. Rah!)
A bit of plot as this is a new play: there is a princess, Althea (Rosalie Craig), whose mother died when she was young. All of the kingdom was plunged into mourning; Althea, for some reason, “rose above it all” quite literally, not only not crying, but literally losing her groundedness, becoming a floating (“light”) princess. Her father, King Darius (Clive Rowe), has her confined to a tower and focuses on her brother as his heir. Meanwhile, in a neighboring kingdom, Prince Digby’s mother also dies … but under mysterious circumstances (as she criticized the king). No one is allowed to mourn her; he becomes the solemn prince (Nick Hendrix), known for never smiling: ideal, as he is heir and his father wants him to be a heartless killing machine, with a life aim of taking over Althea’s gold-rich (but water-poor) kingdom. It seems inevitable that they should meet ….
For a good long time at the start of The Light Princess (well, once the animated background movie was over), I was utterly absorbed in how Althea was made to float. Although at times it was via a harness, in fact, most of the time she was being moved by people, turned and supported (sometimes with their feet!) as if she were a bunraku puppet. Craig appeared to be entirely unaware of the hands and bodies manipulating her; she simply seemed buoyant. While I don’t want to say it was distracting – it was actually fairly invisible IF YOU STOPPED STARING AT IT – it was still such an unusual effect that I missed most of what she was saying (singing, actually, as there was little straight dialog) for at least half an hour.
Crisis time comes, inevitably (as princes and princesses from differing kingdoms must meet in any self-respecting fairy tale), as Althea runs away from her duty to her kingdom and Digby runs toward his (as leader of his kingdom’s army). They both meet in the great wilderness that divides their kingdoms, in a beautiful, magical lake.
Um. I have to stop here, because even before we had got to the lake, my theatrical suspension of disbelief had kicked in and I was just buying everything I saw. King Darius’s Amazonian major general in her amazing gold armor; the falcon that was Digby’s only friend (and the lady falconer with her red glove); a flying princess who could make friends with a beautiful blue bird (surely actually a hyacinth macaw!); Digby and Althea falling in love. I was completely ready for the unbounded amazingness that was the lake: cheesy simple effects with black lights and puppets making fish jump and water lilies bloom and the whole thing feel almost like a stop-motion animation come to life. And, yes, they were still mostly just singing. What could be more appropriate in a world so full of magic?
In retrospect, I had some quibbles: the music felt a bit samey-samey and wasn’t hitting a lot of different emotions; the lyrics, similarly, struggled to get beyond childishness and were crippled by repetition and a lack of imagination (the word H2O shouldn’t really be sung more than once in an entire evening). But otherwise I felt like I was seeing the grand flowering of British theatrical creativity taking place on stage in front of me, the culmination of fantastic set design, costuming, acting and singing talent (that could perform, night after night, while being tossed around like a football!), and a creative approach to movement (animation! puppets! acrobats!) that all blended together to create something I simply cannot believe I got to see in a space as intimate as the Lyttleton. And, man, I got to hear Clive Rowe really sing out, and I got to hear people sing about things I thought mattered – like being accepted for who you are, like not turning your back on things that make you uncomfortable – and, um, all that for twelve pounds? Wow.
The Light Princess is the kind of thing that makes me feel lucky that I live in London. I don’t know if I’ll be able to go again, but I feel sure lots of other people will, and will love it. And you, if you’re thinking about it, I advise you to not hesitate: this is going to be a sell-out.
(This review is for the opening night performance that took place on October 9, 2013. It is booking through January 9th, 2014.)