There are productions when I want to dispense with any pretence of articulate thought and gush like an overexcited teenager. They are not merely good, they reclaim something fundamental about theatre as a wild ride. The Light Princess is such a theatrical adventure.
Adapted as a musical by Tori Amos and Samuel Adamson from a Scottish fairy tale published in 1864, Marianne Elliott’s production brings together many things I love about theatre: restrictions of live performance – where laws of gravity and physical space need to be obeyed – become a virtue and not a hindrance. The obstacles are the magic. The artifice – whether it’s the acrobats, the projections, the costumes or the puppets – are both visible and invisible: the story hides them, the exquisite skill of the performers brings them centre stage.
Many of these elements were present and vital in Marianne Elliott’s previous productions – puppetry in War Horse, animation in All’s Well That Ends Well, gravity defiance stunts in The Curious Incident of the Dog In the Night-Time – but here they are bolder, more confident, welded into the essence of the story. Some of the confidence is evident in the sustained presence of a concept: the Light Princess floats on air for two hours – mostly without the help of wires, I won’t spoil it further – and even if there was no story, no songs, no dialogue, the beauty and boldness and physicality of these images would still make me happy. At other times, the confidence is in the simplicity: sheets recreating the rippling and ferocity of water, puppet birds flying at the end of a stick. The animation has physical substance and is the natural extension of the physical world.
The approach to the story is stardust magic with a sprinkling of feminist empowerment and bodily fluids (eye gouging and vomiting make an appearance, albeit with a twist). The story takes on grief, duty, morality, beauty and the mindless savagery of war. Rae Smith’s set tickles memories of pop up books but still grounds the physicality of the action. The songs are witty at the right side of postmodernism: any musical that includes two Shakespearean references in the space of half an hour does something right.
Rosalie Craig as Althea has a stubborn naughtiness underlined by unwavering confidence – a Pippi Longstocking but in a castle. Nick Hendrix as Digby combines princely beauty with a crackle of sensitivity. The rest of the cast dances, sings and plays with profound pleasure and irresistible abandon.
In the end, my enduring memory of the production will be the audience gasping at the relentless visual beauty and physical daring. It will be a while before another production can match these elements and the huge roar from the audience at curtain call is testament to that.
Curtain call watch: Special mention to the four acrobats Owain Gwynn, Tommy Luther, Emma Norin and Nuno Silva. I don’t think they take a curtain call which is a huge shame.