Thursday, January 09, 2014



National Theatre at the Lyttleton


The nearest the National will get to a panto, I guess. A fairytale with magic and music, beautifully staged by Marianne Elliott.

It tells the story of two warring nations, separated by a wilderness. In each, a motherless heir to the throne. Stage left, in Sealand, solemn Prince Digby, stage right, in the kingdom of Lagobel, Althea, the Princess of the title, She is doubly light, both frivolous and weightless, afflicted both by levity and levitation, unable to weep for her mother's death,

Theatrical traditions are honoured. There is a lovely picturebook front cloth map, boards for the floor, boxes-cum-balconies either side, The prologue, shared between Althea's friend Piper and Digby's brother Llewellyn, is sumptuously illustrated in ombres chinoises back-projection.
Not all the design is as impressive; the lake at the end of Act One, where the lovers seem to drown in billows of white silk, is gorgeous. The Act Two lake, with its garish lilies and fornicating frogs, seems straight out of Disney.

There is puppetry, now a traditional too – scary monsters and soaring birds, including the beautiful Zephyrus, Digby's faithful hawk. Most memorable is the floating [not flying, she insists] which contrasts Althea's lightness with Digby's gravity. Rosalie Craig, supported by a team of acrobats as well as wires, gives an amazing performance, singing as she floats and gyrates above the stage.
Outstanding amongst the rest is Clive Rowe's King Darius, singing superbly [a fine duet with Amy Booth-Steel's Piper].

The story is a fable, muddied a little by modern concerns – Althea is both drugged and force-fed in an attempt to cure her lightness, and her happy-ever-after includes a degree in Marine Biology. The show, despite rewrites, is still far too long, especially for a young audience.

But the weakest element by far, sadly, must be the words and music of Tori Amos. The score demands much of the actors – on a par with Les Mis for its sub-operatic idiom and open-note crescendos. Alas, there is not one memorable, or even enjoyable, tune. All the numbers end up sounding much the same, and the words, when they are audible, are banal to the point of bathos. “H2O” repeatedly used for water …

It's heresy to say so, but having brought together some of the National's finest creatives to stage the show, it's a shame they couldn't get someone who understands the genre to pen the piece.

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