Monday, December 23, 2013

Designing Theatre...

My last two trips to the National Theatre this year have both been to see new plays adapted from children's literature and it was interesting to see the different ways that they were staged.  The one thing they both did was to give the production teams a free hand - but was it to the detriment of the shows?

First up off the rank was THE LIGHT PRINCESS, a new musical written by alternative pop singer Tori Amos and playwright Samuel Adamson that is based on a fairy tale by George MacDonald.  I honestly had no idea what to expect when we took our seats as I had stayed away from all the reviews.  Indeed I wasn't too sure why I had booked in the first place as I am not a big Amos fan - it just seemed a good show to see on an Autumn Sunday afternoon!  However we were both instantly onside as the front-cloth was a colourful and glittering map of the imaginary lands of Lagobel and Sealand.

The show has a major plus in that it's creative team of director Marianne Elliott, designer Rae Smith and lighting designer Paule Constable were responsible for WAR HORSE.  They have brought their collective excellence to this project too, the show is a visual treat and the somewhat twee story is told with a bold panache by Elliott.  What is truly odd however is that at no time do any of the humans in THE LIGHT PRINCESS ever make you care for them as much as you care for puppet Joey in WAR HORSE.

We follow the story of two motherless royals - Princess Althea (Rosalie Craig), the daughter of the King of Lagobel, has refused to ever cry again following the deaths of both her mother and brother and has become so deliberately light-hearted that she has lost her sense of gravity and floats instead of walking.  Her father (Clive Rowe) is at his wit's end so keeps her locked in a tower bedroom where she is tethered by her faithful servant Piper (Amy Booth-Steel).

Meanwhile in the neighbouring country of Sealand the young Prince Digby (Nick Hendrix) since the loss of his mother has lost all mirth and is continually down-hearted.  His wicked father (Hal Fowler a.k.a. Mr. Kim Wilde) actually had his wife killed and rules his country with an iron fist.  His disconsolate son's only friend is his brother Llewelyn (Kane Oliver Parry) and his only joy is with his mother's falcon.

Of course when the two countries resume their eternal war for each other's land, the two royals are bound somehow to meet and of course fall in love.  But their idyll by the lonely lake in The Wilderness which separates their countries cannot last and all seems lost for the young lovers.

The original story has been rewritten by Adamson to have a rather leaden feminist overtone which at times is bearable but at other times is thumpingly obvious as to appear to be a reworking of a Drill Hall feminist panto from the early 80s.  My other concern was the rather listless score by Adamson and Amos which carries enough of her standard introspection but not enough variation to give the musical it's all-important rise and fall. 

Indeed in the second act Clive Rowe had a ballad that was so one-note as to make you wonder if it would actually ever end - it was only the thought that at some point he must have gone to sleep the night before that gave me hope for it's conclusion.  Saying this I have to say that the meeting of Craig and Hendrix in the first act was one of the most lovely and lyrical falling-in-love pas-de-deux I have seen.

These things are all the more irritating because visually the show is a such a triumph.  Of course there is the possible argument that Elliott has stuffed the production with puppetry, physical theatre elements and good old fashioned stage magic to distract from these central weaknesses but these tend to slip your mind when you are keeping an eye out for the scene-stealing rodent that lives in Althea's bookshelf, marvelling at the swirling colourful birds that play key moments in the action and the amphibian creatures of Althea and Digby's lakeside home.

Rosalie Craig's performance was all the more impressive for the physicality that is involved in it.  Whether she is soaring on her wire or being passed around the stage by the onstage acrobats she never dropped the level of her singing and made Althea a passionate and vital presence - if a touch too much of a bluestocking.  Nick Hendrix - last seen as the under-achieving older brother in THE WINSLOW BOY - brought more to Prince Digby than was on the page.

In a sometimes solid, sometimes stolid supporting cast, I particularly enjoyed Malinda Parris as the Serjeant-at-Arms and Laura Pitt-Pulford as the Falconer.  By the fairy-tale finale I must admit I had been swept along by Elliott's mis-en-scene and have booked to see the show again before New Year's Eve so I guess I liked it after all.

The second show which was an even more blatant example of design over content was this year's Christmas production in the Olivier, EMIL AND THE DETECTIVES, adapted for the stage by Carl Miller from the famous novel by Erich K√§stner.

The National has a history of interesting Christmas shows based on 'intelligent' kid's books - HIS DARK MATERIALS, CORAM BOY, NATION and - yes that show again - WAR HORSE.
I have never read EMIL nor seen any of the five film versions so this was all new to me. 
Um.. I'm still not too sure what it's all in aid of as we were 20 minutes late due to a mix-up over the start time.  Sigh, sadly this is where my theatrical autism kicks in - if I don't see a show from the lights going down then all I see are people walking around a stage saying words, I just cannot give myself over to it.
Anyhoo here we are in 1929 Germany and Emil is a young lad who journeys to Berlin from his small town with money saved by his mother from her job that he has to deliver to his grandmother.  On the train journey he shares a carriage with the mysterious Mr. Snow who on learning of Emil's reason for travelling, drugs him and steals the money.  Emil wakes up and chases after the slippery Mr. Snow but where can a young boy who's alone in the city turn to for help in catching an adult?
To the 'Detectives' of course.  A rag-tag group of Berliner children who befriend Emil and using their network of friends across the city seek out the nasty Mr. Snow.  Led by the know-it-all Toots and incorporating Emil's girl cousin Pony The Hat (shrugs) Mr. Snow doesn't stand a chance.
It's a charming tale that tells a good story of friendship helping to triumph over the baddy but it also seemed to be stretched terribly thin across the huge Olivier stage.  Enter Bunny Christie to distract us all with a set that echoed the era of German expressionism with wonky angled sets allied with film and projections to render the stage alive with movement at all times.  As much as I liked the design, it totally engulfed the production - when you are more interested in what the set is going to do rather than what happens to your hero you know something is awry.
Out of a fairly non-descript cast, the younger actors impressed the most.  I am fairly certain our Emil was Toby Murray and he had a nice stillness to his performance which made him stand-out from the clamour onstage, Izzy Lee was good as the bolshy daredevil Pony on her bike and Georgie Farmer impressed as the ringleader Toots who is not half as self-assured as he seems.  Ryan Quarterly was also good as Petzoid, one of the gang who all too soon reveals a hatred for all things non-German and turns the play momentarily toward what was to happen soon.
I'm not sure whether this character exists in the book or whether he has been written that way by Carl Miller but for the rest of the play, after he is ostracised by the group, I wondered what would have happened to our scrappy bunch of crime-busters when the real Nazty men took over.  The slightly uneven and woozy feeling of Bijan Sheibani's production is probably down to a feeling that it's time-setting is too close to an impeding nightmare that one cannot readily put out of one's mind in retrospect.
Or maybe I just feel that because I was not totally immersed in the production?

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