The Light Princess – review

The Light Princess is a show which needs appropriate advertising – ‘pop star writes fairytale musical’ is unlikely to get bums on seats.  The show and the creative process is multi-faceted, each facet a sparkling diamond in its own right.  From the direction of the visionary Marianne Elliott and the much-lauded director of the National Theatre, Sir Nicholas Hytner, to the effortlessly enthralling storytelling of Tori Amos, the show promises to be perfect for anyone interested as much in the pedigree of a show and the individual elements within it as in how it comes together as two hours and twenty minutes of entertainment.

Among those eagerly awaiting the show for years, much speculation was made as to the content and storyline, including allusions to anorexia being used as a metaphor for lightness, as opposed to the princess being genuinely weightless.  On her 2009 album Midwinter Graces, Amos released a track named A Winter’s Carol which alleged to be a song from The Light Princess and featured beautiful, pagan-influenced lyrics about summer queens and holly kings, ribbons of gold and robins, carols and crowns.  Even allowing for the unbelievable nature of fairytales, it seemed that it could be a struggle to reconcile two such disparate elements.  The musical was postponed in late 2011 because although it was good, it had the potential to be even better, and it was recently revealed in pre-premiere press that Hytner told Amos it needed to be darker [x].

So, with the scene not really set at all, and with a great deal of anticipation, The Light Princess received its official opening on October 9 2013 at the Lyttelton, National Theatre, London.

The star of the show is of course Rosalie Craig, who has star quality in bucket loads and manages to stay pitch perfect while suspended on wires and even tossed about by her own personal puppeteers.  But perhaps the most magical thing is her floating – the subtle movements of her hands and feet as she floats look completely natural, as though Craig herself has been weightless since birth.  If the show had been cut to two hours of watching her silently floating above the stage, it would have been completely enchanting and more than enjoyable.  She captures perfectly the attitude of a sixteen year old girl who does not understand the world and has no sense of responsibility, without over-acting the immaturity.  Her Althea is naïve but headstrong, beautiful, self-important, sometimes hurting and sometimes content.  For anyone who has ever been in love, been hurt, or found themselves saying ‘you only notice me when you want something’, it is impossible not to like Althea.

From the moment Althea takes a stand against her father’s demands, it becomes obvious that Amos wanted feminism to play an important part in the storyline and she never lost sight of that vision – the show is full of strong, self aware women.  Piper, Althea’s closest and only friend (played by the unbelievably voiced Amy Booth-Steel) is motherly and loving, sometimes overwhelmed by Althea’s forcefulness, but stands up to the king in spectacular fashion when the moment calls for it.  Laura Pitt-Pulford as Falconer is another one to watch, a second striking redhead whose character’s development is almost certainly pivotal to the story, but the reason for said development leaves more questions than answers at the end of the show (not that I’ve ever objected to being required to spend hours over a good meal dissecting the back story of a character in a show).

The ensemble, although not as numerous in some shows, are vocally strong and are reminiscent of the wonderful ensembles in Wicked and the German-language production of du Maurier’s Rebecca.  Versatile too, they switch effortlessly between mannerisms as well as costumes, from the subservience of King Darius’ servants to the uncomfortably Nazi-esque regimented marching and chanting of Sealand’s army.  And as though that was not enough, they also provide puppetry and scenery support, leaving you with the feeling that they are responsible for more of the smooth – and mesmerising – running of the show than they are given credit for.

Of course, the whole point of The Light Princess is that she floats (not flies, as Althea rather charmingly takes great pains to point out) and this necessitates a lot of time spent on wires above the stage.  At least, it would in any other musical.  But remember this is Marianne Elliott, of what-do-you-mean-you’re-making-a-puppet-of-a-horse-are-you-crazy-oh-I-take-it-back-that-is-amazing!-fame, and Tori Amos, not normally noted for being conventional.  So, instead of the typical Defying Gravity flying (and that is the last reference I will make to Wicked, unlike some), we are introduced to Althea bobbing gently about her room as the black-clad acrobat she is attached to climbs gracefully down the scenery.  It really is something which has to be seen to be believed and truly understood.  At the curtain call, the acrobats received a reception on a par with the lead performers, and absolutely deservedly so.  From moving Althea with their own bodies to holding her and moving her gently to lying on their backs, legs in the air, feet supporting her motionless in a lying position for an entire scene, the show wouldn’t be possible without them.

As though acrobats and floating princesses were not enough, the show also boasts an impressive array of puppets, from vividly colourful birds to swans and frogs, all mastered with the utmost talent and realism.  The most spectacular is without doubt the falcon Zephyrus, stunningly mastered by Ben Thompson, whose swooping and flying lights up the stage, and subtle head movements while at rest are simply charming.  The different elements come together to make you feel privileged to witness such a diverse and exciting show.

However, as with any new show, The Light Princess is not without weaknesses.  The animation used at the beginning alongside the narratives from Piper and Llewelyn is unnecessary and by no means required to follow the storyline.  It feels as though it has been added only so that every possible creative base is covered, alongside puppetry and acrobatics, and has no real purpose.  When used during the dam-breaking scene, it cheapens the look of the entire set.  Although it might help some audience members to better understand the scene by seeing a dam, the National Theatre has recommended that audience members be aged 13+, so it becomes irrelevant.  The cartoon illustration of Digby striking the structure is childish, as is the scene of opening gates when Althea and Piper escape, and the show would not suffer if the animation was removed altogether.

Secondly, although the score on the whole is incredibly strong, the opening of Act 2 is weaker in comparison.  For me, the music and writing thrives in the heart wrenching and conflict-driven numbers, and that particular scene between Althea and Digby was wishy-washy and seemed to drag.  It was not as enthralling or emotive as the rest of the show, but by no means unwatchable.

Overall, ignoring the animation, the show was visually spectacular – who else but the director of Warhorse to translate a story based on flying and swimming into a workable stage show? – and the beautiful score and lyrics were complemented perfectly by the exceptionally talented cast, especially the females.  Some elements, such as exactly how water counters the effects of lightness, were not fully explored, but the watcher must bear in mind that they are watching a fairytale – it need not always make sense as we know it. For a greater explanation of some of the finer points of the storyline, or for no other reason than pure interest, it may be useful to read the original George MacDonald book either before or after seeing the show, although it is by no means a necessity.  But for a magical evening heavy with such creativity that you won’t believe your eyes, The Light Princess absolutely does not disappoint.

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