Theatre Review: The Light Princess

When: Dec 2013 / Where: National Theatre

The Light Princess is a new musical, with music and lyrics by Tori Amos, who I suspect has been part of the draw for many people. Her music is individualistic and highly poetic in nature – the language and storytelling used suggest that her style would lend itself well to a musical. She rarely writes or sings about the ‘expected’ and her work often has a feminist leaning. I felt it would be a safe bet that her involvement here meant that we would be in for something a little more unusual.

The plot summary is as follows: There are two, warring kingdoms, with two motherless children at the heart of them. Upon the death of her mother, Princess Althea decides she never wants to feel sad or cry again and that everything in life must be light. As a consequence, she loses her own gravity and floats around, untouchable in the sky. The King locks her away in a tower and focuses all his efforts on his son as the kingdom’s future leader. The other side of the forest, Prince Digby becomes so weighed down by his sadness at the loss of his mother, that he never smiles again.

When Althea’s brother is murdered, her father turns to her in desperation, asking her to lead the country. But years of his neglect and Althea’s distance from others leads to her running away, rather than becoming Queen. In the woods, she runs into Digby, sent on a mission to find and kill her. He finds he is unable to, enchanted by her, and so a Romeo & Juliet-esque love story begins. They must now decide whether to face their destinies and if they can face them together and bring an end to the war.

The Light Princess had all the hallmarks of a traditional fairy tale, with a few modern elements thrown in. The fairy tale setting gave way to some incredible, wondrous staging. Words almost can’t do justice to how lovely and inventive the work of the design and technical teams was. The sets and costumes were bursting with life and colour; particularly well done was a secret lake teeming with wildlife, which was imaginatively evoked. The opening preface to the story was done through shadow projections onto the back of the stage (much like this). It gave the impression of the audience being told an epic, classical, story and fit nicely with the overarching themes of the show.

Billed as a family show, the basic fairy tale was suitable for children to enjoy, while other, more complex themes were explored for the adults in the audience. The show examined father-child relationships; particularly fathers and daughters and how important those core familial relationships are to a child’s development. It looked at the place of women within patriarchal societies – Althea rejects societal norms and longs to be free from the constraints of her life as a royal daughter – and is subjected to cruel and violent attempts by her father to (literally) ground her. It is widely considered that a husband will solve the crisis and encourage the people to have faith in Althea’s power to lead… (Ahem). Interestingly, it also took a look at why we need emotional balance. Althea struggled with emotions that dug too deep, or weighed her spirit down; Digby resisted happiness. Neither could achieve harmony or freedom while failing to acknowledge core parts of the human experience.

No review of a musical would be complete without mention of the music. Alas, the songs were, I found, not especially memorable. I didn’t leave humming any of them, no scraps of music or harmony got lodged in my brain. But then, I’m not sure that Tori Amos has ever really written what you’d call ‘catchy’ music, so why start now? I did find some songs overlong and repetitive – the point of most songs in musicals is to forward the plot and I felt that they went past that mark several times. The music did contain an ethereal, mystical quality to it, blending well with the fairy tale atmosphere and the singing was excellent; the cast coping admirably with sometimes sudden changes in pitch, note or tempo (as noted above, Amos’ music is often full of the unexpected). Special notice must go to Clive Rowe for doing this particularly well in his major solo.

It was good to see a musical with such an impetuous, wilful – and not always likeable – heroine at the centre. Althea’s refusal to engage with others and her fury at Digby whenever he disagrees with her are infuriating, but her spirit and enthusiasm for the joys in life are wonderfully engaging and make you root for her survival. Much of the credit for the vividness of Althea as a character must go to Rosalie Craig, who absolutely dazzles in this role. Standing out amongst the rest of the cast with a shock of resolutely red hair (a reflection of our composer) she infuses Althea with a strength and effervescence that fill up the stage. Her emotional journey is realistically portrayed and Craig particularly impressed with her command of the dramatic acrobatics her character (who has no gravity and is always drifting and floating) must do. Craig sings at length while turning upside down and back round again, without a note ever slipping or wavering.

I felt that the acrobatics were the most impressive thing about the show. The conceit that Althea cannot ever quite touch the ground is an intriguing one, playing a fantastical role (to complete our fairy tale) and a metaphorical one: Althea cannot cope with reality and fears being on the ground with everyone else; fears their sadness, their anger, their deceit. She believes that by staying elevated and away from them, she will escape the sadness in life. It is a high-concept idea and demanded ingenuity to put into practice. I had assumed, prior to the show, that the ‘light’ part of the princess would be done using wires. In actuality, it is much more exciting than that. I don’t want to explain too much, as I enjoyed the fact that it was a surprise, but while wire work is involved, there is also a very gifted (and strong!) acrobatics team at work here. They, coupled with Craig, must have worked incredibly hard on making Althea’s movements seem light and ethereal. No one shows any sign of working to create that impression –least of all Craig. The effect they manage to produce is utterly magical. Not once do Althea’s feet touch the ground, with the mechanics needed to do so seemingly invisible.

As mentioned above, I did feel that the songs sometimes erred on the long side and in fact, one of my only criticisms would be that I felt the show was too long in general. It might have benefitted from being trimmed down by about 10 minutes, to keep the energy from flagging a bit at the end. However, that being said, I really liked The Light Princess. It was unusual, well-acted, well sung, absolutely sumptuous to look at and phenomenally well staged. It’s playing for limited number of weeks – more information can be found here.

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