Theatre Review: The Light Princess - National Theatre ✭✭✭✭


Review by Sebastian Petit

9th October 2013: Attending a new musical is always a mixture of excitement and dread: will it be the new “Matilda” or “Les Mis” or, horror, the new “Which Witch” or “Carrie”?! The long birth pangs of Tori Amos and Samuel Adamson’s The Light Princess at the National Theatre (it was announced and then postponed in 2011) meant even more was riding on the opening. So was it a success? I would say that, in the main, yes. There are aspects that need sorting: most notably a long first act with an insufficiently clear narrative thrust and too many false endings. But this is a common fault in musicals with “Miss Saigon” being a particular offender. Like “Saigon” the show is through-sung with almost no spoken word but the score rarely falls into the trap of the repetitiously banal recitative-type lines that so often sink the through-sung oeuvre. “The Light Princess” is not a musical that is about individual numbers so much as the accumulated impact of the score. That said there are moments which stand out: particularly etched in my memory are the anguished prison scene between Althea and her companion Piper that achieved almost unbearable intensity and the grandly operatic grief of King Darius when his child appears to be dying was superbly sung by Clive Rowe. Althea’s hugely demanding number when she believes her lover to be dead is also a standout moment - the Princess was not the only person reduced to tears at this point. However I did find the determination to tie up all the loose emotional ends at the climax of the show to be a touch forced - a more equivocal ending might, perversely, be more satisfying.

But set against this the production and the cast are top notch. The sheer technical slickness of the show, in a production which steadfastly seems to avoid the easier options, is often jaw dropping. One particular example will suffice: the title character spends much of the time airborne. An obvious case for the easy thrills and catastrophic limitations of wire-flying one would think. However, although that option is used on occasion, as often as not the Princess is “flown” by a group of astonishingly adept acrobats. Between them they achieve moves of breathtaking complexity which would be impossible using wires. At several points the Princess is passed up the side of the false proscenium to a height nearing twenty feet but with a sense of ease that is both thrilling and delightful.

The fluid and magical designs of Rae Smith are a canny mixture of child-like wonderment and sophisticated wit. They are beautifully lit by Paule Constable. Note should also be made of the clever choreography by Steven Hoggett - I did wonder if the slightly risqué pond lily choreography was consciously channelling Miss Cyrus’ recent foam finger exploits but, either way, it was very funny.

Leading a universally strong cast, Rosalie Craig, in the enormous role of Althea, deserves to be hailed as a major star. Tirelessly and beautifully sung, the role also requires her to perform while constantly manipulated by her acrobatic flying team. Craig never falters and makes a character that could, in the wrong hands, be grating and implausible a constantly sympathetic and credible presence. Nick Piper has a more difficult task as her princely lover, Digby, as the character must, inevitably, play second fiddle to Althea. He manages well but this role is one area which could do with some tweaking if the musical is to transfer to either the West End or Broadway.

I have already mentioned Clive Rowe’s finely drawn Darius - it was good to see him playing against type in an initially unsympathetic role. Also, making much of more limited opportunities, Hal Fowler’s irredeemably evil King Ignacio provided a strong antagonist and Amy Booth Steel a constant voice of sense and a sympathetic presence as Piper.

Despite some faults “The Light Princess” is an exciting music theatre debut for Amos and Adamson which deserves a life beyond the subsidised theatre.

4 stars ✭✭✭✭

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