Saturday 16 November 2013

The Light Princess at the National, or, Unfortunately Sondheim (amongst others) Got There First

I wanted to love this show. I really did. It involves some of my favourite performers and production staff. I am a firm advocate for the production of musicals at the National. There are admirable things about this musical, but in the end it is overshadowed by a variety of predecessors, and hobbled by the inadequacies of the writers.

This show is a positive reminder that the National is a great place for musicals. I can understand why Hytner has tended to shy away from them. It is undeniable that Trevor Nunn did far too many. But I do think Hytner has gone too far the other way. Musicals that make it to the West End are distinctly limited. Other subsidised theatres, and perhaps most notably off-West End powerhouses like the Union and the Southwark Playhouse, have been doing sterling work, but there remain plenty of musicals which deserve revival on a bigger stage than those places can offer. I hope Rufus Norris will have a serious look at this question when he replaces Hytner next year.

In terms of this specific musical, there is one huge plus: the involvement of the magnificent Rosalie Craig. I've been a fan, as I may have mentioned before, ever since her hilarious performance in The Translucent Frogs of Quuup. Here she is the one performer who really manages to transcend the show's weaknesses, imparting genuine conviction to her character. That conviction is also vital to carrying off the realisation of the idea of a floating princess. Credit is equally due here to Paul Rubin (the aerial effects designer) and, I assume, the four performers credited in the programme as acrobats (Owain Gwynn, Tommy Luther, Emma Norin, Nuno Silva). The effect is as stunning as the horses in War Horse or the daemons in His Dark Materials.

The rest of the cast do their best with what they are given. Unfortunately this isn't much and it really is a crime that two performers of such evident talent as Laura Pitt-Pulford and Amy Booth-Steele are stuck as such one dimensional characters and in Pitt-Pulford's case given so little to do.

The production as a whole lives up to the impressive realisation of the floating princess, but it somehow doesn't completely satisfy. The puppetry, the design, the video projections are all very well done, but it is impossible to avoid their derivations. The already mentioned War Horse and His Dark Materials cast obvious shadows, but Elliott has also been to the fairy tale well before with her moving All's Well That Ends Well. It isn't that there's anything wrong with any of it, indeed much of it is visually marvellous, but there is this feeling of deja vu, and this is coupled to the problems of the work itself which prevent these effects from repeating the punch of those other shows.

For the trouble is that this show has a central problem: Tori Amos's music and lyrics and Sam Adamson's book. It wouldn't be quite true to say that after ten minutes you have heard what Amos has to offer, but the reality is not so far off. According to the programme there's an impressive range of instruments in the pit – but the score has little in the way of orchestral colour. Too much of the singing is done in what I would describe as a kind of rock scream – this becomes especially prevalent after the interval. It isn't something that can fit many moods. I'm not sufficiently versed in Amos's music to know but I did have the sneaking suspicion as things went on that what we were getting was a lot of characters singing like her. The whole also has a pretty similar driving mood from start to finish. Sometimes this works well enough (as in the final battle) but not sufficiently often, and I grew tired of the music by Act Two. Nor do the lyrics compensate. It was I think a mistake to make such use of lines about being brought down and gravity – the mind unavoidably makes comparisons with Wicked's “Defying Gravity”, and those comparisons are not in Amos's favour. In addition Amos is rarely capable of making a musical number really take us deep inside a character. Lyrics also tend to the obvious and superficial (and the references to water as H20 made me want to scream). Her shortcomings are most cruelly exposed because, by choosing a fairy tale setting, the shadow of Sondheim's Into the Woods is made unavoidable. None of Amos's numbers get anywhere near the emotional depth of something like “On the Steps of the Palace” or “Moments in the Woods”.

Of Adamson's book there is rather less to be said for the simple reason that there is almost nothing to it. About the only extended spoken lines come at the end. They're mildly amusing, but they point out glaring missed opportunities. Adamson abruptly pairs off four characters on the basis of no development whatever and one sits there thinking what someone like James Lapine might have done with this material (indeed it is impossible not to remember what Lapine did do with similar material in Into the Woods). This failure to do anything with the many promising secondary characters is symptomatic of a larger failure to tell a tight and focused narrative. The show has a great many interesting ideas but ends up rambling and episodic. As long as those episodes are focused on Craig she manages to hold the attention – when it drifts away from her there are problems (again I think a large measure of this comes down to the show's pretty complete under-development of everybody else).

Ultimately this show makes me sad. There's a lot of talent involved on stage and in the production team. The source material has enormous promise. I just wish the National could have found a writing team capable of doing something really compelling with it.

Finally, regular readers will know we occasionally give out awards. In this case the irritation factor of one of Amos's lyrical devices deserves I feel this mark of recognition. I therefore award the inaugural Tori Amos Mistakenly Repeatedly Referring to Water as H2O in the Cause of the Lyrical Rhyme Award to Tori Amos. Let it stand as a warning to other aspirant musical theatre lyricists.

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