Review: Princess Caraboo, Finborough Theatre

“Send us a pineapple for the wedding breakfast”

What was the last lie you told? How much was at stake and did you even think of the consequences? Such are the questions being raised at Briarwood Hall in Sir Charles Worrall’s talk on the study of lies and lying to which we’re all invited. And to illustrate his thesis and to break up the Greek philosophy, he’s employed his staff to act out musical scenes of a notable scandal of the 1820s in which his family was involved. So begins Phil Willmott and Mark Collins’ new musical Princess Caraboo in an amusing and inventive manner, which entertains right until the last porky pie has been told.

Based on real events, the Princess Caraboo was a woman who claimed to have been shipwrecked on the English shore and taken in by some well-meaning sorts in the Worralls, was able to inveigle her way into the heights of Regency society. But by highlighting this deception from the start, Willmott’s book is more concerned with the way in which such lies take hold and are promulgated by societal convention and the need to maintain a facade of propriety. It adds up to an effective and affecting piece of storytelling and reaffirms the Finborough’s commitment to supporting British musical theatre.

There’s a rather bracingly honest article in The Stage by Willmott about the genesis of the project (which was first performed as a staged reading as part of the Finborough’s Vibrant festival and seen by yours truly) and how it was originally envisaged for the larger stage of Bristol’s Old Vic but it loses nothing in the small-scale production it receives here. Willmott directs with a fast-flowing sense of pace, Thomas Michael Voss’ choreography packs in a good deal of excitement into the intimate space and Toby Burbidge’s design is economical in more ways than one!

Crucially though, it is highly musically entertaining. A lightness of touch keeps the show sprightly indeed under Freddie Tapner’s musical direction and there’s a real tunefulness here in songs such as ‘Just Say Yes’ and ‘I Am My Own Person’ which emerges as the main theme, reprised with some absolutely gorgeous harmonising by all concerned. The playfulness in form also allows for a cheeky bit of forward musical referencing in the Kander & Ebb & Fosse-like vibrancy of Act 2 opener ‘Truth’.

And performances are strong throughout. Nikita Johal’s Princess is a subtler creature than you might expect for a title role but she makes you believe the struggle is real, especially as she manipulates the men who’ve come into her life. Oliver Stanley’s Lord Marlborough is a deliciously awful slice of upper-class toff who fancies a piece of “exotica” as that’s what in at the moment, in direct contrast to former schoolmate Eddie Harvey who is taken into Caraboo’s confidence and finds himself utterly immersed in her conspiracy and increasingly under her spell. No word of a lie, Princess Caraboo really is rather good.

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes (with interval)
Photos: Scott Rylander
Booking until 22nd April


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