“Anyone can be a princess,” chirps Sara Crewe. The moral of the Southbank’s A Little Princess couldn’t be timelier, just a week after the Royal Wedding. Originally premiered at Mountview, this musical incarnation of the famous 1905 American novel swaps the British Raj for Colonial West Africa. Sara is a mixed-race heiress; her father is British Captain Crewe, while the spirit of her late mother Aljana inhabits her favourite doll. Sent to London to Miss Minchin’s boarding school for girls, she is bullied by teacher and child alike. However, her determination, kindness and creativity win her friends, love and respect. For one night only, The Royal Festival Hall presents a magical show, however it is not a smooth run.
Like a Victorian Meghan Markle, Sara Crewe is inspiring with an eye for fairness and a voice protesting injustice. Jasmin Sakiyama is the star of the show as the little princess, her talent and charisma fills the Festival Hall, irresistibly immersing the audience in her adventure. Strictly’s Danny Mac also takes a star turn. As Captain Crewe he perfectly inhabits cartoonish Aristocratic speech and mannerisms, as well as movingly portraying the man’s love for his daughter. Amanda Abbington is the fairy-tale’s villain, a steely mixture of Snow White’s step-mother and Annie’s Miss Hannigan. However, the talented cast is let down by uneven choreography and direction. More is expected of the illustrious Arlene Phillips. Often the dancing is tired, unimaginative and repetitive. In one scene, the London Symphony Orchestra conjures the musical’s beautiful score only to be met by stillness on stage, this incongruity let’s the performance down.
With some awkward silences, unfavourable acoustics and choppy amplification, the production feels slap-dash. It is up to the cast and the show-stealing orchestra to pull it back, and they do – just about. A sparse set relying on lighting and animation projected on a screen above the stage, creates some sense of place but this production needs more to compete with other West End Shows. The medium of the semi-staged show is static and awkward. It feels like a children’s BBC prom, especially as two choirs (child and adult) loom above the instruments. Surely it would be more thrilling to employ more all-singing, all-dancing actors to enrich the show as a musical? The score is energetic and atmospheric, it would be a joy to see this reflected in the set and choreography.
Despite these disappointments, A Little Princess is an inspiring tale for a multicultural Britain, as individuals who identify as mixed race are the fastest growing group in the UK. Sara overcomes racism (though as children’s show it is only subtly alluded) and is the ultimate heroine. However, at times the casting confuses this racial narrative. Actors of colour play characters in London whose race is not an issue, undermining this element of the story. While more inclusive, pluralist theatre is wonderful, it must make narrative sense. Setting part of the story in Saint Louis (ostensibly Senegal) allows for more diversity, yet many of the actors in these scenes were white. This production illustrates our society’s confused attitude towards race, as colonialism is presented with a colourful mixture of white guilt and nostalgia. Although this is ultimately a fun night out for the family, A Little Princess is far from the Royal standard.