The National Theatre’s latest musical production, The Light Princess, is an absolute feast for the eyes. Imaginative and bold, designer Rae Smith (War Horse) and director Marianne Elliot (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) have created a fairy-tale scape so magical it is hard not to be seduced by it. But while our eyes were spoilt for choice, our ears were left less satisfied with the experience.
The Light Princess is an adaptation of Scottish author George MacDonald’s 19th century fairy-tale of the same name, heavily embellished by playwright Samuel Adamson. At its bare bones, it is the tale of Princess Althea of Lagobel (played beautifully by Rosalie Craig) – a girl who copes with the death of her Queen mother by shrugging off all moral weight and thus becoming light as air, and Prince Digby of Sealand (Nick Hendrix) – who deals with the same tragedy by becoming heavy with tears.
As Althea, Craig spends much of The Light Princess up in the air, although not in the way you might expect. High wires do make an appearance but the majority of her airborne moments are achieved by acrobats holding her aloft in a series of complex lifts and contortions. It’s smart, it’s low-tech, and it really works.
The rest of the staging is similarly spectacular, if less subtle. Background animations, towering sets and a whole host of skillfully handled puppets make the entire performance a visual delight. It is slightly Disney-esque in approach (frogs peering up curiously at a beautiful princess as she sings lugubriously, laying prone on an oversized-lilypad) but it is done with such sophistication and humour that its slight gaudiness is no fault (watch out for a lovely projectile vomiting moment, unlikely as that sounds).
Yet while it is possible to leave with beautiful scenes in mind, you would be hard pressed to leave humming a tune. Where The Light Princess falls flat is its music. A real shame – music and lyrics come from American singer-songwriter Tori Amos so we had high hopes. But the songs, although performed well, are flitty, hard to follow and for the most part, too long. Apart from a fantastic ender there was little in the way of a catchy melody, making the emotional intent behind the songs hard to grasp.
If you want to watch something wonderful, then The Light Princess will not disappoint. But if you want to listen to something special, you may leave wanting more.
The Light Princess is at The National Theatre’s Lyttelton Theatre until 9 January 2014. Tickets cost £12-£48 and can be booked online. Londonist saw this production on a complimentary review ticket.