George Macdonald’s Victorian fairytale The Light Princess is given a twenty first century makeover in the National Theatre’s latest venture into the whimsical world of musicals. With a creative team including singer-songwriter Tori Amos writing the music and lyrics and Marianne Elliot (of War Horse fame) as director, this production raises high expectations. Add to this a six-year wait for the new musical’s debut and you begin to see the production’s key issue: it would be nearly impossible to live up to this hype.
Nevertheless, The Light Princess makes a valiant effort. The warring kingdoms of Lagobel and Sealand are separated by ideology and a wilderness of dandelion trees and a sparkling lake. Gold-bathed Lagobel is a democracy lead by King Darius, a man whose goodness is tainted by grief (the wonderful Clive Rowe) while just across the patch of green is Sealand, home of the Royal Fleet and evil, murderous, tyrannical King Ignacio (Hal Fowler). Think Disney with a tantalising aftertaste of Game of Thrones. Althea, Princess of Lagobel (Rosalie Craig) and brooding Prince Digby of Sealand (Nick Hendrix) are due to inherit their fathers’ thrones but in the meantime find themselves fighting each other and their pasts. They both lost their mothers as children: mirrored tragedies that affected them in very different ways. While Digby cast his face to the ground in mourning, Althea looked up and became weightless.
As Althea, Craig floats about the stage like a flame-haired human balloon, tethered by orange ribbons. The visual effect of this is stunning and Craig gives an incredible and captivating performance, even while singing upside down. The four acrobats who manoeuvre her around do so with flawless choreography and some very impressive muscles. This is very impressive but means that, occasionally, the mechanics of The Light Princess are more fascinating than its storyline: the charming love story has a surprising dark edge so packed with issues including (but by no means limited to) sex, democracy, feminism and eating disorders that it is hard to keep up with at times. The ecological slant, involving a lot of whining about ‘H2O’, soon gets tiresome and preachy.
However, The Light Princess is undeniably beautiful and Rae Smith’s design achieves the fairytale, dreamlike quality that the show needs. The puppets are charming and Matthew Robins’ animation works well. This production is technically stunning but its aesthetics battle with the heavily polluted, and almost completely sung, book. While Craig dazzles, she is slightly let down by Nick Hendrix’s half-hearted prince Digby. Thankfully there is a lot of talent to be found in the supporting cast including Amy Booth-Steel as chirpy orphan and guardian angel figure Piper and Laura Pitt-Pulford as the Falconer, Piper’s evil Sealand equivalent who struts the stage like a sexy pirate.
The production’s heart-warming and thoroughly modern happy-ever-after ending (featuring two gay couples and lots of glitter) makes up for the majority of theThe Light Princess‘ failings yet this musical is missing something. While I loved ‘Supremacy’, most of Amos’ songs blur into one forgettable tangle of melody, lacking the catchy quality so important in musical theatre. Ultimately The Light Princessnever soars as high as its beautiful heroine Althea but, despite its bewilderment, is a treat for the eyes and an utterly spellbinding