Five years in the making, The Light Princess – by musical forces Tori Amos and Samuel Adamson with direction from the equally formidable Marianne Elliot at the National Theatre – is going to set expectations pretty high. Amos’s musical career spans 13 studio albums and global success whilst Elliot’s direction includes Tony Award-winning War Horse (as co-director) and Olivier Award-winning The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, both playing in the West End to sold out audiences. The Light Princess doesn’t seem so light when you have that weight pulling you down, but little stops this new musical from being bold and ambitious even if it feels as if it doesn’t quite know what it is yet.
Creating a contemporary-inspired fairytale, Amos and Adamson’s musical sees two kingdoms at war. The scorched lands of Lagobel ruled by King Darius (Clive Rowe) has an unlikely heir in Althea (Rosalie Craig) whose inability to cry leaves her floating uncontrollably in the air. In the water-rich kingdom of Sealand, King Ignacio (Hal Fowler) sees potential in his son Digby (Nick Hendrix), whose inability to smile makes him a ruthless warrior. Althea, frustrated with her oppressive father, shuns her royal duties and flees (or rather floats) into the Wilderness with her companion Piper (Amy Booth-Steel), whilst Digby, commanding his mighty army, also heads into the Wilderness to defeat Lagobel in a bloody battle. Naturally the two royals meet and battle, although this proves challenging when Althea lives up to her name of the Light Princess, floating above Digby’s head. They quickly forfeit fighting for, quite predictably, falling in love. The rest of The Light Princess sees their struggle with young love as they wrestle with their opposing backgrounds and parental control, whilst accepting that their kingdoms need them to rule.
Amos’s music is wonderfully rich and dynamic, her orchestrations (with additional support from Martin Lowe) swell in glorious technicolour throughout. Much of the music holds Amos’s trademark piano rhythms and melodies, with use of harpsichord and string arrangements that fill the Lyttelton Theatre in sweeping waves. Adamson’s book is a little clumsy at points, with some structural problems that feel as if the weighting of the show falls within the first act. Much of the energy and drive of the piece that is built during the first act fizzles slowly during the second, but this doesn’t hinder the show too much, especially when there is real joy to be found within the often humerous narrative and Amos’s musical numbers.
Craig, as the floating princess Althea, is the clear standout within the cast; her vocals are simply stunning. Springing from flighty princess to boisterous and demanding independent young woman, the character depth and versatility that Craig brings to the role is tremendous. There’s much to be admired within Amos’s the musical writing in bringing forth such a strong female lead (a theme that runs throughout The Light Princess, embracing a strong feminine power), that doesn’t fall limp at any moment. Even when Craig is grounded during the second act there’s a beauty in the musical range and songs written for the character of Althea. Hendrix’s Digby is warm and rich, but there’s a niggling impression that Amos enjoyed writing more for the character of Althea, but again this is a small concern in the grandness of the show.
As for the direction and design (Rae Smith) there is no denying that this creative team have gone to town in their playful presentation of the musical. Smith’s design does feel slightly dated, but this gives the story an aesthetic quality that feels distinctly fairytale-esque, as if its been ripped from a storybook. Matthew Robins’s animations give a fantastic backdrop to the opening scenes, whilst Toby Olie’s puppetry designs bring lightness and humour throughout the show. Elliot’s direction draws on her work over the past few years to give an excellent and varied boldness to The Light Princess. The character of Althea is a particular joy as she floats about the Lyttleton stage, half manipulated by a series of puppeteers (although puppeteering Craig’s body) and half through a wire, but the seamlessness of direction is breathtaking. There’s certainly some imaginative fun within Elliot’s direction that can’t help but to make you smile.
The Light Princess is certainly an ambitious project, punctuated by its long development period and successful creative collaborators. As a new musical it will inevitably receive criticism from the critical community as all new British-led musicals do, but there is merit within the intense musical arrangements of Amos’s songs, even if none of them are catchy enough to have you singing them as you head home. Despite the beauty, because there really are moments of pure theatrical bliss, The Light Princess does feel a little lost within its creativity. It’s an imaginative and bold piece of theatre, that brings a distinctly feminine punch to the stage, but something doesn’t click completely. Whether this is the inexperience of Amos’s musical writing for the stage, or a slight feeling that The Light Princess is somewhat dated, or too familiar with the likes of twisted fairytale musicals such as Wicked already in our minds, is perhaps unclear. Part of this uncertainty comes from a feeling of not knowing who this new musical is aimed at; a family audience doesn’t quite feel accommodated but neither does a generic adult audience. Regardless, it might have its faults but you can’t knock The Light Princess for bringing a touch of imaginative and creative joy to the National Theatre. You certainly won’t be disappointed.
The Light Princess is playing at the National Theatre until 9 January 2014. For more information and tickets, see the National Theatre website. Photography by Brinkhoff/Mögenburg.