The Light Princess, National Theatre

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Originally written for Exeunt.

There can be little doubt by now that fairytales are a fertile source of artistic inspiration. And, as Angela Carter brilliantly proved with The Bloody Chamber,they are certainly not just for children. The long-awaited musical by Tori Amos and Samuel Adamson attempts to follow in this line of interpretation, adding considerable narrative and thematic padding to the 1867 tale by George MacDonald. Unfortunately, the result is less innovative than it is wedded to convention and archetype – not so much reinventing fairytale tropes as giving them a light prod.

The premise itself is intriguing. Althea, played by Rosalie Craig in a dazzling central performance, has no gravity. The princess hovers perpetually above the earth – not flying, but floating – unable to keep her feet or her thoughts rooted to the ground. Following the death of her mother, Althea’s head is in the clouds in more ways than one; she is buoyant in spirit as well as body, living in a fantasy of her own construction and incapable of taking anything seriously. Her opposite number is another motherless royal, Prince Digby, who reacts to grief not with escapism but with unrelenting sorrow. Thanks to the warring of their two nations, Lagobel and Sealand, the two are quickly set on a collision course – one that any fairytale fan can see will end in romance.

From the initial lengthy exposition onwards, the musical teeters uncertainly between straightforward fantasy and impish irreverence. In its most enjoyable moments, it is knowingly playful, referencing and occasionally sending up its fairytale heritage. Matthew Robbins’ animations, which lend a hand with the early storytelling, have an appealing picture-book quality, while the “once upon a time” framing of the narrative by Amy Booth-Steel and Kane Oliver Parry offers glimpses of arch wit. Elsewhere, however, the show slides all too smoothly into established patterns. There is nothing essentially wrong with conforming to fairytale conventions – they haven’t endured for hundreds of years for nothing – but The Light Princess never seems quite sure what it is doing with these inherited devices.

Equally, Amos and Adamson’s flimsy plot makes a cursory and often clumsy attempt at feminist revisionism. Mentions of Angela Carter in the programme notes – known, of course, for her own feminist appropriation of fantastical narratives – raise hopes that the piece itself all but dashes. Yes, Althea’s characterisation is a bit more complex than your average Disney princess, and yes the final tying up of loose ends raises a couple of cheers for strong women, but on the whole the storyline is hardly subversive. Even in the supremely capable hands of Craig, Althea is not a patch on one of Carter’s heroines.

Despite these flaws, however, there is a fair amount of enchantment in Marianne Elliott’s inventively staged production. Rae Smith’s design occasionally veers towards the indulgently saccharine, but at its best it conjures the spirit of heightened, wide-eyed wonderment that is at the heart of all good fairytales. There’s also some charming puppetry and a series of giddying acrobatics to create the illusion of Althea’s weightlessness – so giddying, in fact, that the sheer awe they inspire can be distracting. Craig, meanwhile, is stunning in the central role, achieving Althea’s floating physicality with an apparent effortlessness that must in fact be extremely effortful, while lending her belting voice to Amos’ surprisingly unmemorable score.

But just as the production seems about to sweep us off our feet – as during the aerial stunts of the unapologetically romantic first encounter between Althea and Digby, or in an altogether darker scene that finds its heroine suddenly earthbound – it struggles to maintain the flight that is so natural to Althea. Caught between playful subversion and faithfully rendered magic, The Light Princess fails to deliver on either.

Photo: Binkhoff Mögenburg

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Port, National Theatre

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Originally written for Exeunt.

There’s a striking moment, towards the end of this nostalgic, grit-flecked portrait of Stockport, when the concrete-clad surroundings perceptibly shift. Protagonist Rachael, back in her home town after several months away, remembers once gazing up at the clocktower as a soaring skyscraper, a local landmark of immense proportions that in adulthood has dwindled to a mere speck on a vast world. It’s a simple moment, but one that speaks to the shifting space in which we play out our lives, the contours that seem to move and blur as we grow older, the once huge monuments that now feel inconceivably small.

Geography – or more accurately psychogeography – is central to this story of growing up in Stockport, which announces its preoccupation with place in its very title. Rachael, who over the course of the play transforms from a gobbily precocious eleven-year-old to a bruised but optimistic woman of 24, fighting fiercely all the while to get out of the place that has spawned her, is trapped in a town populated with ghosts. First Rachael’s mother and then her grandfather make swift exits from her life, leaving behind traces in the frayed urban fabric. Past exists alongside present in a way that is reflected in the circumstances of this production, a revival of the play’s 2002 premiere at the Royal Exchange Theatre headed by the same creative pairing of Simon Stephens and Marianne Elliott, equally haunted by their own memories of the shared home town that shaped them.

While the naturalistically rendered environment of this nostalgia trip vividly conjures the bus stops, battered cars and hospital waiting rooms of Rachael’s world, the space of the Lyttelton stage is engaged in more than a simple one-way exchange with the piece. Between the play’s collection of snapshot scenes, Lizzie Clachan’s beautifully constructed designs conspicuously dismantle around the perceptive central character as she very deliberately looks on, participating in her own transformation at the same time as the space transforms with her. This is habitat as clothing, old haunts shrugged off like school jumpers; the landscape seismically shifting within the perspective of the protagonist whose eyes we see it through as she struggles with family crises and collapsing relationships. Light, from anaemic fluorescent tubes to a heart-catchingly hopeful sunrise, is more than just illumination – it is frustration and desire.

This eloquent dialogue with the content stretches from the way the production looks into the way it sounds. Just as the concrete pulses with the pop music of a decade that played to the soundtrack of The Stone Roses and Oasis, so the structure of the play as a whole jitters and jumps to an almost musical score. The pace, beginning at a frustratingly slow patter, speeds and slows across the eight distinct scenes, with occasional furious rises in pitch that rip through the rhythm of the drama; repeated themes – home, childhood, fear of death – loop back around in refrains, or perhaps more like tracks that keep returning on shuffle. The whole is sometimes frustrating, sometimes catchy, but with a chorus that climbs insistently into the ear.

Amid all this movement and sound, it’s hardly surprising that Rachael repeatedly refers to the world as “mental”, with the double implication of inconceivable, unjust madness and a psychological dimension to the version of Stockport that we are presented with through her experience. Rachael is a challenge and a gift of a role, a complex, wounded but resolutely optimistic figure, who in the hands of Kate O’Flynn is unceasingly engaging. So captivating is this central presence that the characters around her often feel lightly sketched, faded and drab alongside her vivid outline, barely less ghost-like than the gaping absences in Rachael’s life.

While the grim realities that Port portrays have not evaporated, the nostalgic tint of the production is a reminder that today’s world, more than a decade after Rachael’s closing look at her home town, is in many ways a very different place. There is a heavy sense of this particularly in the play’s build-up to the turn of the millennium, at which Rachael ponders whether this break represents a beginning or an end. Thirteen years later, as this production is inevitably refracted through subsequent events, it’s a question we still seem to be asking. Just as the play’s cyclical structure rewinds the track back to the beginning, we often end up in the same place we started in.