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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
THE LIGHT PRINCESS
at the National (Lyttelton)

HOLLOW PACKAGING
By CLIVE HIRSCHHORN

  Nick Hendrix and Rosalie Craig/ Ph: Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

It has taken the National Theatre six years – from conception to birth – to offer its new musical, The Light Princess, as an early Christmas gift. Superficially, the packaging is pretty enough, with sets redolent of Selfridges windows during the festive season, but open the box and what you’re left with is a hole in the air. It’s empty and vacuous.

Expanded from a story George MacDonald wrote in 1867, it tells the tale of 16-year-old Princess Althea (Rosalie Craig), who, after the death of her mother and brother, was so traumatised by grief that she lost her sense of gravity and, from childhood, was in a perpetual state of levitation, literally floating above the realities of life.

In playwright Samuel Adamson’s adaptation, she is confined by her despairing father, King Darius of Lagobel (Clive Rowe), to the proverbial palace tower, where she is perceived by the locals to be a witch. Adamson’s attempts to prop up the narrative involve an ongoing war between King Darius and the evil King Ignacio of Sealand (Hal Fowler), whose son, the solemn Prince Digby (Nick Hendrix), provides the obligatory love interest when, by chance, he meets the floating princess.

Indeed, it is love and its painful vicissitudes that, in the end, fill the light princess with the gravity that allows her to rejoin the human race.

I’m not quite sure at whom this trumped-up fairy tale is aimed. For adults, Adamson’s turgid book and lyrics (at one point he rhymes “princess” with “accept less”) touches on power politics, the destructive nature of war, arranged marriages and the nurturing force of water (don’t ask). For the kids there’s an enchanted lake with puppet frogs, all manner of flora, water birds, the occasional dragon and monster, plenty of visual clichés, such as billowing sheets to represent water, and exotic winged creatures attached to ribbon-like lassos. There’s animated back-projection a-plenty, including some striking silhouettes and an effective car-chase – nothing, it must be said, we haven’t seen before.

The show’s best, most original concept is the floating princess herself. Aerial effects designer Paul Rubin, take a bow. He’s the real hero of this inflated, dispiriting enterprise. Working with the pliable and talented Craig, who, with a little help from a group of black-clad acrobats, alarmingly contorts her body in mid-song, Rubin solves a difficult problem and provides the evening with its only smidgen of magic.

You will, however, listen in vain for anything resembling magic in American singer-composer Tori Amos’ relentlessly banal score. And as the show is virtually through-composed, you’re lumbered with about two and a half hours of tuneless warbling, the prime victim being Rowe, whose decibel-topping falsetto vocal line is as uncomfortable to listen to as it must be to sing. The rest of the cast makes little impression and are absorbed by Rae Smith’s storybook sets.

The production is directed by Marianne Elliott, who, working with members of the same creative team that helped bring the far superior War Horse to life, is defeated on this occasion, by a witless book, a wallpaper score and no palpable sense of purpose or conviction. Even visually, on which so much attention has been lavished, the show feels kitschy.

Six years in the making is an awfully long gestation period for any production. Particularly this one. What a waste of precious time it has been.

 


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