There can be little doubt by now that fairytales are a fertile source of artistic inspiration. And, as Angela Carter brilliantly proved with The Bloody Chamber, they are certainly not just for children. The long-awaited musical by Tori Amos and Samuel Adamson attempts to follow in this line of interpretation, adding considerable narrative and thematic padding to the 1867 tale by George MacDonald. Unfortunately, the result is less innovative than it is wedded to convention and archetype – not so much reinventing fairytale tropes as giving them a light prod.
The premise itself is intriguing. Althea, played by Rosalie Craig in a dazzling central performance, has no gravity. The princess hovers perpetually above the earth – not flying, but floating – unable to keep her feet or her thoughts rooted to the ground. Following the death of her mother, Althea’s head is in the clouds in more ways than one; she is buoyant in spirit as well as body, living in a fantasy of her own construction and incapable of taking anything seriously. Her opposite number is another motherless royal, Prince Digby, who reacts to grief not with escapism but with unrelenting sorrow. Thanks to the warring of their two nations, Lagobel and Sealand, the two are quickly set on a collision course – one that any fairytale fan can see will end in romance.
From the initial lengthy exposition onwards, the musical teeters uncertainly between straightforward fantasy and impish irreverence. In its most enjoyable moments, it is knowingly playful, referencing and occasionally sending up its fairytale heritage. Matthew Robbins’ animations, which lend a hand with the early storytelling, have an appealing picture-book quality, while the “once upon a time” framing of the narrative by Amy Booth-Steel and Kane Oliver Parry offers glimpses of arch wit. Elsewhere, however, the show slides all too smoothly into established patterns. There is nothing essentially wrong with conforming to fairytale conventions – they haven’t endured for hundreds of years for nothing – but The Light Princess never seems quite sure what it is doing with these inherited devices.
Equally, Amos and Adamson’s flimsy plot makes a cursory and often clumsy attempt at feminist revisionism. Mentions of Angela Carter in the programme notes – known, of course, for her own feminist appropriation of fantastical narratives – raise hopes that the piece itself all but dashes. Yes, Althea’s characterisation is a bit more complex than your average Disney princess, and yes the final tying up of loose ends raises a couple of cheers for strong women, but on the whole the storyline is hardly subversive. Even in the supremely capable hands of Craig, Althea is not a patch on one of Carter’s heroines.
Despite these flaws, however, there is a fair amount of enchantment in Marianne Elliott’s inventively staged production. Rae Smith’s design occasionally veers towards the indulgently saccharine, but at its best it conjures the spirit of heightened, wide-eyed wonderment that is at the heart of all good fairytales. There’s also some charming puppetry and a series of giddying acrobatics to create the illusion of Althea’s weightlessness – so giddying, in fact, that the sheer awe they inspire can be distracting. Craig, meanwhile, is stunning in the central role, achieving Althea’s floating physicality with an apparent effortlessness that must in fact be extremely effortful, while lending her belting voice to Amos’ surprisingly unmemorable score.
But just as the production seems about to sweep us off our feet – as during the aerial stunts of the unapologetically romantic first encounter between Althea and Digby, or in an altogether darker scene that finds its heroine suddenly earthbound – it struggles to maintain the flight that is so natural to Althea. Caught between playful subversion and faithfully rendered magic, The Light Princess fails to deliver on either.