Thursday 11 September 2014

Theatre Reminiscence: The Light Princess, one year on (or, Levity Forever)

“Gravity, are you feeling?” Time flies. Or floats. It’s hard for those of us who loved it to believe that it’s almost a year already since The Light Princess, Samuel Adamson and Tori Amos’s “edible, delectable” musical, directed by Marianne Elliott, opened at the National Theatre. Readers of this blog won’t be at all surprised to learn that that first preview of the show remains, to paraphrase Carole Zucker, one of my “‘great evenings of theatre’ where one truly feels one has witnessed something important, fresh and even heroic.” Mostly, I remember feeling overwhelmed that night: by how much there was to explore, both aurally and visually, in the piece, by all the emotions that the show stirred up. The show felt totally fresh, surprising, unlike anything I’d seen before.  And yet, as with much of the art that’s affected me deeply, there was also a strange sense of familiarity to the experience too, a comforting recognition. As my friend Vicki Clark, who saw the show more than twenty (count ‘em) times, recalls, of that first preview: “The opening bars of 'My Own Land' sent shivers down my spine. I knew from that moment, and that dramatic, bold refrain, that I was going to love the show.”

Not quite equalling Vicki’s awesome tally (or that of my friend Erin Quilliam who “lost count” a bit but estimates that she went to the show more than sixteen times), I saw The Light Princess ten times in total: sometimes with family, friends, or my lover, and sometimes alone. In many ways it defined that period, September 2013 to February 2014, for me, to the extent that I recall various events of that time - whether joyful or sorrowful - through its prism. I made friends through the show, argued with people about it (online and in the real world), learnt the songs and sung them all over the place. Each of those ten visits has a different flavour and texture, as I recall them. The second time was about really beginning to appreciate the music, in all its richness and complexity, and starting to see just how intricate and densely patterned the score that Amos and Adamson had created was, and how integrated with the characters’ struggles and transformations. On subsequent visits I started to observe the work of the acrobats more and more and to really be captivated by the strange, beautiful ballet that their contributions, choreographed by Steven Hoggett, made the show into.

Always, always there seemed something new to notice: whether a detail in Rae Smith’s design, a previously overlooked aspect of a performance, or the brilliantly immersive build of the lengthy sequences “Queen Material” and “Nothing More Than This.”  Cherished individual moments such as Althea’s cry of “I can’t stand my own land!”, the sheer gleeful exuberance of “Better Than Good”, the operatic ache of the wrenching “No H2O” (which both Vicki and Erin single out as their favourite moment in the show), Nick Hendrix as Digby joyfully rising from the ground with his airborne lover in “Althea”, Laura Pitt-Pulford’s shimmering cameos,  Malinda Parris’s sublime “Scandal” moment, the "suitors" scene, Althea’s chilling reclamation at the end of “Queen of the Lake”, Clive Rowe’s fearsome bellow of “I am King, King of you all” … these gradually gave way to other moments, until ultimately what you were responding to wasn’t so much individual lines or sequences, but rather the whole thing: the gestalt of the show. 


It was fascinating, too, to see the diverse reactions of those I’d come with, or those around me, from the enthusiasm of an elderly woman next to me who loved the show so much that she vowed to return to it with her husband the very next night to an American tourist’s po-faced interval comment: “This is very, very weird.” My friend Adam, on his third visit to the show, wrote me: “I still have the image in my head of a woman with tears in her eyes at the end, shouting to her girlfriends: ‘OH MY GOD! THAT WAS UNBELIEVABLE!!’”

Aside from the first preview, my own most memorable encounter with The Light Princess was an impromptu visit I made to a Sunday matinee performance on December 1st, following one of those crushingly miserable evenings that you’re not sure you’ll ever quite recover from. I stayed out in the city all night, found myself Southbankside in the morning and ended up day-seating the show. (In what turned out to be pretty much the coolest-ever day-seating queue.) In my emotional state, the impact of the show was staggering.  I remember feeling embraced, comforted, energised and inspired by the images, voices and melodies, and feeling that, though massive changes had to be made, everything would be OK after all, if I could just summon the courage to face it. If I ever need reminding of the power of art to help and heal then I only have to think back on that strange weekend when pretty much everything I’d hoped for fell apart, only to be redeemed and restored in this unexpected way. 
It’s not every show that could withstand so many visits in such a short span of time, of course. But the richness of The Light Princess - and how all-of-a-piece the show felt despite the very many different elements in its composition - was part of what made it so special. (And it’s worth pausing briefly to remember that there were quite a number of people who really, really did not like the show, but let’s not linger over those stupid cunts misguided souls here.)  For all the fierceness of the show’s critique of patriarchy, it’s a work of rare generosity of spirit, a show without cynicism, and one possessed of an openness that really allowed and encouraged you to find your own way into it. As Erin comments: “There were so many different ways you could react, and the show was left almost entirely for your own interpretation. So you felt and found different things each time.”

“We hope that women, men, of all ages, all sexualities, all races, and different experiences relate to our piece,” Amos said at the Platform that she and Adamson did together in October. “Because really the idea of Althea and Digby is that they’re responding differently to a tragedy [the death of their mothers]. And we all respond differently, don’t we? And sometimes we’re judged for the way that we respond or the way that we are… So we wanted our story to resonate with all kinds of situations and with all kinds of people from different backgrounds.” 

Part of the impact of the show, I think, was that the parallel arcs of those two protagonists - Althea towards gravity, Digby towards levity; he learning the value of rebelliousness; she becoming “responsible” on her own terms  - tapped into something archetypal and profound about the human condition, and about the balance required in human affairs. (Just as every good fairy-tale should.)  “I related to the show a lot, especially to the character of Althea,” Vicki tells me. “I think most young women my age will have been in a situation where they feel like they don't fit in for some reason or another, or have had their own issues to cope with, much like Althea's lack of gravity. Seeing her eventually overcoming her struggle in her own way, in her own time, was reassuring to watch.” Erin identifies the relationship between Althea and Piper (Amy Booth-Steel) as one of the main things she connected to in the show.  “I saw so much of myself and my best friend in those characters. (Though I don’t have to keep hold of her ribbons, thankfully.)”
For me, the show’s exploration of escapism was its most relatable – and surprising – element. Adding an entirely new psychological dimension to the original MacDonald story, Amos and Adamson made their Light Princess very much a work about the strategies we employ to deal with loss, pain and grief. “The air didn’t have shadows and nor does this place,” Althea tells Digby in the lake, having traded the air for Amphibiava, one safe space for another. The arc that Adamson and Amos devise for Althea is all about her overcoming her need for such comfort zones, as she opens up to love (with all its challenges and complexities) and faces up to the darkness in her world rather than trying to escape it. 

It was a journey that Rosalie Craig’s radiant performance illuminated at every stage, as her Althea metamorphosed from gloriously truculent (though obviously damaged) teen to victimised bride-to-be, ardent romantic heroine and dragon-slaying warrior to gracious womanly presence. What was amazing for those of us who saw the show multiple times was not only the apparent effortlessness with which Craig negotiated the singular physical demands of the role (including singing upside down, twirled around, and, during “My Fairy Story,” with a foot in her crotch) but the risks that she took in it. Every single performance (and the actress missed nary a one during the show’s entire run)  seemed utterly new-minted, spontaneous and  in-the-moment, so much so that a line like “I am the last of the Darcys” might be delivered in an airy defiant whisper at one show and then shouted as a triumphant declaration at the next. As Sam commented in the last interview we did: “She seems constantly to be reinventing herself and the role.”
There was still much more exploration to be done with The Light Princess, one feels: for audiences and actors alike. And the fact that the show got its extension at the NT but didn’t get the West End transfer that many of us hoped for makes the whole experience incredibly special and incredibly bittersweet.  Each to their own and all that, but I can’t help but feel annoyed that a piece of cobbled-together, Broadway-by-numbers tat like Dirty Rotten Scoundrels finds a life in the West End while a show as challenging, inventive and carefully crafted as The Light Princess doesn’t.  Reminiscing about that final show on February 2nd, Vicki recalls “a lot of tears, mainly! But I'll never forget that day. I was so sad to say goodbye to The Light Princess but the audience was full of people who had mainly seen the show before, and it was like a big family. The cast were on top form as always and it was so moving to see them just as sad about it closing as we were! If I could have spoken to the cast, Tori and Sam collectively, I'd love them to know how happy they'd made so many people with their work. I've never felt so excited or attached to a piece of theatre before, and I doubt I will again. (Until it's revived, obviously!)”
It’s a happy thought that the release of the cast recording (scheduled for 2015) will be the next step on the journey of The Light Princess, offering those of us who loved the show the chance to revisit - and those who missed it the opportunity to discover - all the characters and emotions brought to life so vividly in a wilderness of emerald, and kingdoms gold and blue.




  1. To me, this show's score is the perfect argument for the requirement of multiple listens. The more I hear the music, the more I discover in terms of its complexity and intricacy. It really is quite remarkable how much depth the show is given through the score itself, and unfortunately that sense of intricacy is perhaps too subtle or too dense for many audiences to gather on just one viewing. I was able to meet Tori Amos during her recent Unrepentant Geraldines tour, and I actually shared with her a bit of a written analysis of the Light Princess's score I've been working on, which details the numerous leitmotifs threaded throughout the music and how they develop in the narrative. There are over twenty distinct, recurring musical motifs in this score - pretty remarkable for a stage musical.

    1. It's an outstanding score. Glad to hear that you're writing about it.

  2. A lovely piece on a wonderful show. Can't believe it's a year already! Saw it three times, and loved it.

  3. Thank you. :) Yes, still miss it...

  4. I went to see the show twice, loved it :-)