Review: The Queen is Mad, Lion & Unicorn Theatre

Fascinating new musical The Queen is Mad examines the trials of life of a princess at the Lion & Unicorn Theatre

“The princess’s future is never within her control”

For all the glitz and glamour associated with it, the life of a royal woman undoubtedly has its challenges, something that is as evidently true today as it was in the sixteenth century. Amy Clare Tasker (book and lyrics) and Tom James McGrath (music, book and lyrics) may yet produce ¿Donde esta la princesa? but for now, they’re presenting The Queen is Mad at the Lion & Unicorn Theatre.

This particular queen is Joanna of Castile, daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella and older sister of Catherine of Aragon and remembered unkindly by history as Juana la Loca. Married off to Philip the Handsome (seriously, these sobriquets!!) at the age of 18 and moved from her native Spain to the Low Countries, as her parents’ fourth child there was little thought of the line of succession. But as a series of family deaths leave her the heir presumptive, the greed and ambition of the men in her life goes into overdrive.

At just 60 minutes long, The Queen is Mad offers a considered miniature rather than a full-on historical epic but it makes its points no less effectively. As a princess, Joanna received an education but also as a princess, she had no agency. Natasha Hoeberigs’ portrayal suggests a young woman determined to make the best of her lot regardless but as Philip (an excellent Brian Raftery) reveals himself to be just as controlling as he is handsome, that becomes increasingly difficult.

After the death of her mother and her ascension to Queen of Castile, there’s a heartbreaking moment where she shares her dreams of becoming a progressive monarch, particularly in light of Spanish imperial progress in the New World, but it becomes the turn of her father to turn on the manipulations (Alan Vicary relishing the flourish). Even knowing the patriarchy as we do, there’s still a jaw-dropping horror at how far he goes.

Tasker’s modern-dress production crystallises those allusions as to how little the situation might have changed but also acknowledges a tempestuous nature to Joanna (the hair!) that others were able to exploit both in terms of her position and her legacy. McGrath’s score has a pleasant musicality and uses an almost playground-esque motif to devastating effect as its melody echoes hauntingly from palace corridors to her own psyche.

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