The Light Princess, Tobacco Factory

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Originally written for the Guardian.

The Light Princess is having a moment. George MacDonald’s 19th-century story has been something of a footnote in the fairytale canon, but now – just two years on from the ambitious Tori Amos musical at the National Theatre – it’s receiving a second, deliciously silly staging courtesy of Tobacco Factory Theatres and Peepolykus.

Where Amos and co padded out the plot of MacDonald’s tale, this version sticks to the basics. As an act of revenge by her snubbed aunt, the princess of the title (an infectiously joyful Suzanne Ahmet) is cursed with levity of body and mind. She can’t keep her feet or her mind rooted to the earth, and laughs up among the clouds instead. When a gloomy, gravity-bound prince (Richard Holt) arrives searching for a wife, it’s the perfect match.

A weightless heroine presents obvious staging challenges, which John Nicholson’s production meets with knowingly shambolic solutions. Some wobbly shadow puppetry and a heavy dose of make-believe compensate for the lack of aerial stunts, deliberately exposing the mechanics of the show.

This yields some fantastic gags, especially from a scene-stealing Amalia Vitale in various supporting roles, though the company could ease up on the arch nods and winks.

So intent is The Light Princess on being funny that often clarity of plot is sacrificed for levity of tone. Luckily, Verity Standen’s songs – all characteristic wit and gorgeous vocal texture – are there to steer the story back on track. Standenorchestrates the show in more ways than one, her court conductor marshalling the chaotic action with a flick of her baton.

This take on MacDonald’s fairytale might be anarchic and disordered, but its messiness is all part of its joy. Like its floating, lighthearted heroine, it unabashedly celebrates the amusing and the absurd – two aspects of life that we could all do with being reminded of from time to time.

Photo: Farrows Creative.

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