“The biggest stinker is the one with the foulest stench”
Fate can be a funny thing. As anyone who has read this blog for a bit will know, I decided a while back that director and playwright Phil Willmott was going to be my new best friend after Once Upon A Time At The Adelphi melted my heart, but oddly enough that has yet to come to fruition! But being a very hard-working man, opportunities to see his work keep popping up and when a preview of his new musical Painted Lady – The Princess Caraboo Story was announced as part of the Finborough’s Vibrant festival, there was no chance I wasn’t booking my tickets. And sure enough, the man himself was there and after introducing the show, he made his way to his seat WHICH WAS NEXT TO MINE! Good times. Except, due to Chiltern Railways’ inability to notify people just when their engineering works were taking place making me rather late and needing to run to make the curtain and it being a ridiculously hot evening, it was practically like a sauna in the little theatre and so the only thing I could do next to Mr Willmott was sweat, a lot. And I am sorry to him for that. Goddamn fate!
Anyway, the show: Willmott accepted a commission for a brand new musical from the Bristol Old Vic for 2011 and this is the first airing of the material being developed for it, the first draft of an embryo I think someone described it as. After a week’s rehearsal, we were told not to expect too much and to imagine the dance routines in the big numbers, a tricksy way of lowering expectations because as a company of 17 filed onstage, they acted and sang and in some cases threw in a bit of choreography which looked quite practised and comfortable, all very impressive. As with other works-in-progress, this is more an overview though than an actual review.
The story is based on a true story of a feisty young girl who manages to fool 1820s high society into believing that she was the exotic Princess Caraboo, shipwrecked off the coast of Bristol without a word of English. As she finagles her way into the lives of Lord and Lady Worrall, she is tutored by Edward Harvey, a young man returning to England after travelling to find his family name in disgrace, who finds himself growing closer to her as he edges nearer to the truth about who she really is.
The songs seem to be shaping up well, sonically full of Willmott’s trademark multi-part harmonies, interesting to listen to with quite a varied bag of styles in there. Crucially, they serve a dramatic purpose and move the story along, providing more information or insight into characters’ motivations and there’s some nice lyrical invention in there too, especially with some multi-lingual trickery in a couple of songs and a good deal of humour. The book is also pootling along nicely, the main theme of the lies and deceptions that all people tell themselves to get through the day, whether large or small, is well thought through and engaging.
As Princess Caraboo, Sarah Boulton is mightily impressive, both acting-wise, there’s almost something of the Eliza Doolittle in her spunky persona and the learning process she undergoes, and vocally, she delivered the show-stopping act 1 finale “I Am My Own Special Person” with a barnstorming performance. Daniel Boys was good as the well-intentioned Eddie, who brought Harvey’s Bristol Cream into the country apparently, adding his customary geniality to a currently fairly bland leading man.
The villains of the piece are great fun, Simon Thomas was good as the lewd and dastardly Lord Marlborough and Gavin Alex was having a whale of a time as the nefarious Spaniard Jean and the funniest song (about shit!) in the show, even if it is stylistically a little too different for comfort. Elsewhere, Paul Clarkson and Mandi Symonds have brilliant chemistry together as the aristocrats who take in the princess, seeking to replace the daughter they lost, their brief duetting in the second half was a lovely moment and it might have been nice to hear more of that; and the ensemble were strong, delivering Willmott’s beautiful harmonies well (it was nice to see Matthew Markwick in there but I would love to see him in a bigger role!)
So whilst finally meeting Mr Willmott did not go exactly as I might have planned (although I did get to tell him how much I loved ‘Once In A Lifetime’) this was a great opportunity to preview an intriguing work-in-progress and it is definitely one that will be worth waiting for.