“You are, you are…Althea, you are…changing the world for me”
Long awaited and long gestated, Tori Amos and Samuel Adamson’s musical take on The Light Princess arrives at the National in a blaze of theatrical glory that makes it one of the shows of the year. Based on a Scottish fairytale, the teenage heirs of warring kingdoms are both mourning the loss of their mothers but their grief has affected them in different ways. Digby’s soul has become weighed down so heavily he has forgotten how to smile, whilst Althea’s protective mechanism has been to become to airily light that she literally floats above it all. As they rebel against their strict fathers, they each escape to neutral ground only to encounter each other and instant attraction. But emotional articulacy doesn’t come easily and political concerns threaten to tear apart their passion before it even really begins.
Marianne Elliott’s direction pulls together the various elements of her huge creative team with exceptional skill, never losing sight of the sheer magic that the best theatre can bring and marrying a very modern aesthetic with the sometimes traditional feel – Althea’s movement (I don’t fly, I float!) is achieved through some amazing acrobatic work from a team of four with just a little help from some high tech flying rig. And in Rae Smith’s gorgeous designs, it all just looks superb; every movement catching an acute moment of emotion, whether the deft manipulation of a falcon into flight (Finn Caldwell and Toby Olié finally making puppetry make sense to me) or a girl literally raising the spirits of a boy (Steven Hoggett’s inimitable physical language once again heart-stoppingly good).
As one might expect from a musician like Amos, the score is dense and rich and unmistakeably complex. She eschews traditional song structure for something more akin to Sondheim, unafraid to use short musical phrases alongside lengthier pieces and always maintaining a propulsive storytelling, anchored in deep emotion. We’re not in the land of reprises here but significant melodic phrases do re-appear – the soaring romance of the “you are, you are…” refrain, the quietly magical beginnings of “once upon a, once a”, the martial rhythms of the Sealanders’ anthem – it is strikingly beautiful and demands to be heard again.
Lyrically, Amos and Adamson get it right too, along with Adamson’s book. A wry sense of humour – the brothers Grimm and Snow White get shout-outs – is laced with a determined independence from all concerned. Children rail against fathers, servants disobey masters, the headstrong lead the day but as in all good fairytales, they learn lessons. People learn how to deal with the corrosive effects of grief, realise that responsibilities aren’t always there to be shirked, and discover that you can’t dally about in a lilypond with no clothes on without consequences.
And giving the story life is a hugely talented and accomplished ensemble, with nary a weak link between them. Rosalie Craig’s Althea, with Owain Arthur, Tommy Luther, Emma Norin and Nuno Silva as the extension of her ever-moving self, is the performance of a lifetime – the physical stamina they show in the various evocations of her weightlessness is astounding, their collective movement simply hypnotic, and on top of that Craig combines teenage angst with a powerfully sensitive vocal that rages with emotions too big for Althea to process – the crumbling of her emotional resolve, when it comes, is almost too painful to bear.
Amy Booth-Steel as her ever-faithful companion Piper, Malinda Parris as the serjeant-at-arms and Laura Pitt-Pulford’s compassionate falconer all stand out vibrantly and there’s real joy in hearing Amos write for men for the first time – she delights in testing the extraordinary range of Clive Rowe’s voice (a sadly under-used King Darius) and as the handsome Sealand brothers, Kane Oliver Parry’s Llewelyn and Nick Hendrix’s Digby make appealing princes, Hendrix’s leading man an interestingly subtle choice against the strident feelings of Craig’s Althea.
So there you have it, I don’t imagine it will be for everyone but I absolutely adored it. So much so, that on leaving the theatre, I booked myself a second trip without hesitation, not caring how much it was going to cost me. An absolute triumph.