As consummate storyteller Frances Hodgson Burnett recognised, stories make us feel alive. The best stories can haunt the senses and quicken the heart – an adrenalin shot to the imagination. Burnett also knew, like her fiercely inventive young heroine Sara Crewe, that stories are most powerful in the telling. It is this power, in the form of charming and immersive narrative, that is channelled by Fringe regulars Belt Up Theatre in their latest literary foray.
In what has become something of a trademark, Belt Up tell this particular story, sacred in the memory of little and not so little girls around the world, in a familiar yet bracing way. Jethro Compton’s play teases at and subverts our expectations, banking on the cultural currency of Burnett’s literary output and its legacy for many generations of children. Incorporating elements of Burnett’s biography and her other literary works, as well as mischievous nods to the film version of the novel it is working from, this is no straightforward adaptation.
The staging is likewise given a playful Belt Up twist. Gathered in intimately haphazard arrangements on the floor at the edges of the performance space, there is a quality of primary school story time to the company’s interaction with the audience. Removed from the inscribed formality of the traditional theatre auditorium and forced into childishly undignified positions, spectators shed their acquired inhibitions and enter happily into the spirit of play – two grown men even allow themselves to be chided into chasing one another around the room. Through such simple, evocative touches, gently transporting us back to childhood, Belt Up render the often tricky feat of interactivity seemingly effortless.
Set at ease and invited to dream, the imaginative step needed to fall headlong into Belt Up’s enchanting world is a barely perceptible one. Tightly enveloped in this thick blanket of storytelling, it is easy to appreciate, along with Serena Manteghi’s captivating Sara, why the lavish palaces of the mind might be preferable to the grey drudge of the everyday. There might be precious few happy endings in real life, but that does not stop us from pretending.
**** – 4/5 stars
A Little Princess plays at C Venues until 27 August, as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. More information can be found here.