There can be no more charming and radiant a show at the Fringe this year than English Cabaret’s The Happy Prince. Adapted by Sue Casson – who also plays the Chorus – from the original short story by Oscar Wilde, this witty and melodic musical draws its particular magic from the infectious enthusiasm of the cast. The Chorus’s Fringe-appropriate adage, “Staging’s the art of turning what’s there to your purpose”, proves wholly true in The Happy Prince. Creative and colourful costumes are used to great effect despite their simplicity: Casson’s parti-coloured robe deserves special mention, forming an admirably festive backdrop for her deftly performed conjuring tricks.
The Happy Prince is a family affair in every sense. Two of its characters (the little swallow who befriends the prince, and the Chorus’s assistant, Pandora) are played by the son and daughter of Casson and Tom Blackmore, the show’s director. Young Robert Blackmore moves beautifully as the bird, a performance which is enjoyable throughout – from Artful Dodger cheekiness at the outset to an authentic, startling poignancy at the end. Lily Blackmore is an outstanding singer: away from the Fringe, she leads the Southwark Cathedral Girls’ Choir, and her part highlights her vocal strengths. Although her role does not bear directly on the show’s core encounter – a surreal connection, part philanthropic and part masochistic, between a golden statue and the swallow that falls in love with him – she plays most of the beneficiaries of the prince’s generosity. As the match girl, in particular, she scintillates: a young performer to watch, at future Fringes and beyond.
Tom Dawkins’s role, the happy prince himself, is the most difficult. For the most part, he remains fixed in position as befits a statue, and thus cannot participate in the energetic movement and choreography carried off so well by the rest of the cast. Yet Dawkins, who previously appeared in the London Palladium production of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, is more than capable of bringing the central figure in this modern fable to life. Dramatising Wilde’s stories is a challenge: they are by turns lyrically beautiful in the vein of the Aesthetic Movement, and wrenchingly sad, with a sadness considerably more lush, and less stark, than that of older tales. The prince, who commands his beloved swallow to pluck away not only the gold leaf that covers him, but even his sapphire eyes, is an ambivalent figure, and Dawkins’s depiction – semi-human, tender, witty, ineluctably tragic – is both interesting to watch and genuinely emotive.
Casson’s adaptation benefits from a light touch and a good ear for rhyme. The show is full of funny lines, with the prince regretfully musing that, “When I was alive at Sans-Souci, I lived a life of pure felicity”, and the swallow hoping to receive, “Refreshing rest, for one beau geste”. The Happy Prince offers sparkling entertainment for families with children, but it is verbally clever enough to be a real pleasure for older audiences too – there is no need to take a child along in order to enjoy it. With an extremely young cast, this is not the most polished of shows and a few rougher edges remain, but The Happy Prince is theatre with a heart. Replete with thought-provoking parallels to the sufferings wrought by present-day austerity, it is the best sort of fable: never overstating the points that Casson and Blackmore want to make, it is consistently entertaining from start to finish. “Theatre’s not just about tricks of the trade”, the Chorus insists, and The Happy Prince transcends all tricks. This is a twentieth anniversary production of the show, and such a sincere, delicate, and funny piece deserves not only a well-attended stint at the Fringe, but – with any luck – another twenty years.
**** 4/5 Stars
The Happy Prince is playing at C -1 at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival until the 27th August. For more information and tickets, see the Edinburgh Fringe website.