Circa 1820 a British aristocratic couple took in a poor shipwrecked girl because they thought she was a lost exotic princess from a distant kingdom. They introduced her to the high society and although she didn’t speak any English, she quickly became an admired celebrity, until a couple identified her as their runaway maid. Once everyone knew she was a fraud, she left everything behind and fled to America.
The story of Princess Caraboo is based on this astonishingly true story, serving as the premise for Phil Willmott and Mark Collins’s brand new musical, which has its London premiere at the Finborough theatre.
The staging of this musical evokes mixed feelings: on the one hand, it is incredibly impressive how well the creative team utilises the small space, using a stripped down and minimalistic aesthetic that still manages to create a magical atmosphere and suspend disbelief. On the other, however, the Finborough’s space is so tiny that some of the blocking feels crammed, resulting in an almost claustrophobic production. With only two entrances and exits, the scenes are presented on a conveyer belt, leaving very little space for creative transitions.
Willmott and Collins’s score is very colourful and entertaining, and the ensemble does a great job of performing it with passion and determination. Songs such as ‘Just Say Yes’ and ‘Truth’ really showcase each of their voices, their sense of humour and charisma, while the solo performances such as ‘I Am My Own Person’ and ‘Home’ sound like they have all the qualities to make them instant classics. However, around the 90-minute mark the songs do start to blur together a little, while the plot seems to be overstretched with an overabundance of final twists. Even the lectures of Charles Worrall on lying (the form that frames the entire musical), which result in him entering and exiting almost every time a scene ends, feels a tad forced and clumsy – as if the story of Princess Caraboo is too thin a tale to become a two-act musical.
The cast, nevertheless, is full of powerful voices and truly funny performances, and yet there are some scenes that feel a little problematic. One example would be the song ‘Speaking Caraboo’, a gibberish song that aims to imitate a supposedly “Coptic Nubian dialect”, but a language that is referred to in the stage direction as “gobbledygook the actor makes up”. The musical clearly comments on the naivety of 1820s England, but it is still imitating a ‘foreign culture’ in a way that is often uncomfortable to watch. Of course, this might not be completely intentional, but it still prompts the question of whether this is the best way of telling this story in contemporary musical.
Princess Caraboo is playing at the Finborough Theatre until 22 April. For more information and tickets, see the Finborough Theatre website.