National Theatre, London
Music & lyrics by Tori Amos
Book & lyrics by Samuel Adamson
Directed by Marianne Elliott
It says much for Marianne Elliott that the National Theatre currently have three of her shows on in town. This visionary director confounds the conventional boundaries of theatre and in combining well crafted puppetry with slick animation and excellent actors continues to astonish her audiences. A George MacDonald 19th century fairy tale, The Light Princess has been transformed into a musical by Amos and Adamson and whilst the show is a visual treat, scratch the surface and the musical is found to be truly light indeed.
Amos’ melodies albeit with an occasional rock undertone, often blend into a ballad-fest, with lyrics that lack craftsmanship (one loses count of how often the clumsy phrase “H2O” appears in songs). The show has a strong message to deliver on female emancipation, but sets about bludgeoning its cause into the audience with the subtlelty of a suffragette protestor rather than a slickness of modern artistic debate. Lest the show’s message is lost, Amos and Adamson hammer it home with lengthy speeches for both prologue and epilogue and the good folk of the National (under the brilliant Lyn Haill) endorse the politics with a programme that includes 18 pages of (some political) commentary and lavish photographs, yet strangely omits a list of the show’s musical numbers. Extensive animations pepper the show, yet all this clever speech and vision do not make up for the singular failure of The Light Princess to convey its message through the genre of musical theatre. A good musical, even one with a political message, (think Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret and Kiss Of The Spider Woman or Jason Robert Brown’s Parade) should be able to tell its entire story through song and dance. Prologues, epilogues and fancy animations are tell-tale signs of writers who lack the depth or talent to fully argue their subject musically and who have taken an easy way out. The beautiful work of Macdonald’s original tale and Elliott’s stunning direction is cheapened by Amos' and Adamson’s feminist politicising, with a reference in the show to anorexia that is almost offensive. When Althea vomits through having been force-fed, should that really be a laughing point for the audience? Of course not and that moment is a (thankfully rare) episode of disappointing stagecraft.
Notwithstanding her minor flaws, it still remains Elliott’s treatment of the show that demands that this piece of theatre be given attention. Rosalie Craig is Althea, the Light Princess, onstage almost throughout and who through the devices of both beautiful human puppetry and state of the art flying technology, spends nearly the entire show with her feet off the ground. In Elliott’s War Horse, the human puppeteers “disappear” from conscious vision after about 5 minutes or so and we believe we are seeing horses on stage. In this show, the excellent Acrobats who manipulate Craig don’t quite disappear from our vision, but they do deliver an effect that surely is as enchanting as anything MacDonald could have wished for. Craig is a delight in her starring performance though she is supported by a sublime cast around her. Clive Rowe could not be a more majestic king and whilst his previous National roles have offered him better lyrics to work with, his singing in this show reminds us what a treasure of the London stage he truly is. Amy Booth-Steel’s Piper narrates and sings with flair, whilst Laura Pitt-Pulford’s gorgeously booted Falconer, gives a thrilling rock belt to a number early in the show that is one of the few musically exciting moments of the evening.
New theatre and especially musical theatre is always to be encouraged and bravo to the National and to Nick Hytner for getting behind such innovation. The show might not be the best of the bunch, but its performers certainly are.
Now booking until 9th January 2014.