Nicholas Hytner's refusal to play safe with the musical genre has been one of the glories of his regime at the National. From Jerry Springer: the Opera to the verbatim-based London Road, he has fostered shows that seek to do daring and original things with the form.
Now after five years of development and one postponement (in 2011), his theatre unveils The Light Princess, a collaboration between the American singer-songwriter Tori Amos and dramatist Samuel Adamson. True, it's a bit preachy after the fashion of Sondheim's Into the Woods and yes, Wicked might seem to have the patent on “Defying Gravity”. But, at its best, this show —- brilliantly staged by Marianne Elliott of War Horse and Curious Incident fame – is a magical and ravishingly distinctive fusion of the theatrical arts.
Giving a feminist twist to a Victorian fairy tale by George MacDonald, it's a darkly droll coming-of-age piece that focuses on the heirs to two warring kingdoms and their contrasting reactions to bereavement. When her mother dies, the Princess Althea remains dry-eyed and takes refuge from pain and responsibility in a perverse, levitating weightlessness, whereas Prince Digby copes with a similar loss by becoming a heavy-hearted, solemn soldier. The astonishing Rosalie Craig, flame-haired like the composer, manages to pour forth a stream of glorious sound, even when dangling upside down as she wafts about, the illusion of her floating sometimes produced by a team of black-clad acrobats who hoist and manhandle the actress into a multiplicity of aerial contortions.
There may be no take-home tunes in Amos' through-sung score but it has a rich intricacy of texture and can rise to a pulsing, rhapsodic ardour – for example in the beautiful sequence where, as they fall in love, Prince Digby (excellent Nick Hendrix) holds on to the heroine's ribbons and seems to fly her like a kite. And Rae Smith's enchanting designs have a delectable wit. I loved the moment when stamens in the shape of two suggestive legs in green tights and red slippers suddenly sprouted from one of the gaudy water lilies on the black bin-liner secret lake.
There's a scary sequence where a succession of grotesque suitors compete to find a cure for the heroine, who is left, for a time, horribly hobbled with surgically bolted metal callipers. But the story, which takes an ecologically correct turn in the second half, movingly shows how it's only by opening up to the anguish of grief that Althea can find a love that is grounded in reality. There are flaws, sure, but I emerged from this bewitchingly unusual evening walking on air.
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