The Light Princess, the Tori Amos-scored, Samuel Adamson-written, Marianne Elliott-directed musical was contentious even before it reached the Lyttelton stage at the National Theatre, its many delays hinting at trouble at t’musical mill.
When it (finally) opened in early October, it met with mixed reviews; critics were far from universally convinced it was worth the wait. The Daily Mail’s curmudgeon critic Quentin Letts practically choked on his quill in his review, scoffing: “Lord knows what sort of mushrooms they were serving in the Royal National Theatre canteen when artistic director Sir Nicholas Hytner agreed to stage this peculiar musical”.
A self-styled ‘feminist fairy tale’ fuelled by magic mushrooms? Sounds ace.
And I thought it was. This modern re-boot of a 19th century short story by George MacDonald has a magical heart, a lavish dose of glitter and goodwill and some rousing, feel good choruses. The Matthew Bourne-esque scenery, all iridescent lakes, puppet rats and gothic towers added to the production’s charm and wit.
The musical tells the story of Althea, the Light Princess of the title, who is left gravity-less after her mother dies and she is unable to cry. Locked in a tower by her once-kind father, King Darius of Legobel (a bombastic Clive Rowe), she is content to spend her days floating and reading classic stories. But when her brother dies, she is forced by her father to take on his military role in the fight against Legobel’s neighbours, Sealand. Meanwhile over in Sealand, Prince Digby (an excellent Nick Hendrix) is so weighed down by grief following his own beloved mother’s death, that he’s nicknamed the Solemn Prince. Digby is put in charge of Sealand’s army and leads his troops towards Legobel where he easily overcomes the enemy. On his victorious route back he bumps into Althea who was trying to avoid the whole skirmish. And they live happily ever after… or do they?
It’s difficult to imagine The Light Princess being even half as delightful without Rosalie Craig’s wonderful central performance as the weightless Althea. Her singing voice is both powerful and controlled, her solos conveying emotional punch without attention-seeking warbles or showy offy extra notes. And she does a lot of her singing upside down, or ‘floating’ – held up by nothing more than supersonically powerfully-thighed acrobats (the black-clad, silent stars of the show).
The sprinkling of feminism may have felt forced in other environments, but there was a real sincerity and ballsiness to this production. Althea isn’t a ‘strong’ woman because she’s ‘feisty’ and ‘fearless’ – the usual lazy shortcut for a non-doormat woman – these traits weighed her down even if they did render her gravity-less. It was only when she shook them off, shedding heavy tears that released her from her emotional shackles that she felt powerful again.
My main motive behind wanting to see the show was Tori Amos’s score, although this was perhaps the weakest part. Some numbers showed flashes of Amos’s brilliance, but much of the score was repetitive and flat, although lifted by the performers and the excellent and enthusiastic orchestral and the chorus scenes were suitably rousing.
The Light Princess is magical escapism; perfectly snug, heart-warming theatre-fodder for the days before Christmas that ditches (some of) the whimsy of fairy tales of yore for a modern, sassy, inclusive production.
by Suzanne Elliott