Friday, 4 December 2015

Review: The Light princess, Tobacco Factory, Bristol

As a kid I was a massive fan of George MacDonald's stories, including the Princess and the Goblin, At the Back of the North Wind, and the Light Princess. MacDonald is a largely forgotten Victorian author who nonetheless was a massive influence on writers like CS Lewis and Tolkien. He trained as a clergyman but by all accounts wasn't awfully successful at it: he didn't like the idea that hell was a permanent sentence and believed every soul would come to God eventually.

It's easy to see why MacDonald didn't go down too well in the Victorian church: his stories are oddly un-Victorian, with an idealistic,  yet satirical edge. He tends to poke fun, or worse, at the pompous and hypocritical. His heroes are often lower class (a miner's or a cab driver's son), while the upper classes are ineffectual or horrid. There is an odd, proto-feminism going on, since workers of miracles, dispensers of wisdom, and figures of supernatural power in his stories tend to be female, older, and often rather sexy with it. "Princes get away to follow their fortunes. In this they have the advantage of the Princesses, who are forced to marry before they have had a bit of fun. I wish our Princesses got lost in a forest sometimes," he writes, a bit mournfully.

The Light Princess is a story about a Princess who is cursed to lose all her gravity, both in a literal and a metaphorical sense. Not only does she float around, she also can't take anything seriously. Like all MacDonald's writing, it has funny bits but is also really, really dark in places. There's also water, water, everywhere.

That given, I'd always assumed it'd be fairly hard to make a film of it, let alone a play. The National Theatre made a musical a couple of years ago, but completely rubbished MacDonald's original plot. So I was keen to see what the Tobacco Factory had made of it.

(C) Farrows Creative
I was really pleased that this production of the Light Princess, by the Tobacco factory in association with Peepolykus, used MacDonald's original story. They didn't skip a bit of it, and added a few new elements as well. They got round some of the more fantastical elements of the stories by using shadow puppets and projections, and very well done it was too - genuinely adding to the atmosphere of the story. All of the main characters were excellent. The Princess was both irritating and sympathetic, the evil witch was enjoyably evil, the King insisted on mansplaining at people (which he does in MacDonald's original story), and the poor over-serious Prince was hilariously, earnestly Teutonic, wandering round the woods having nihilism problems, before falling for the Princess.

There were two invented characters and a couple of bit parts that'd been worked up as well. These were there to provide comedy and also some of the more slapstick parts of the show. There were lots of genuine laughs but to be honest I could have done with a bit less of these comic characters. The whole thing could probably have been about ten minutes shorter but all in all an excellent show and a really clever adaptation of something that might seem very difficult to stage. There was even real water! The set and design were great - working the traditional fairy tale look without overdoing it, and handling the fact that half the story takes place in a lake without even batting an eyelid.

Also thankfully - so thankfully - no mention of Christmas spuriously shoehorned in, even though this is the Tobacco Factory's Christmas production. So if you feel you can't cope as an adult with any more seasonalness, it's ok, you're safe. The show is recommended for ages 6 upwards, and I don't think it is suitable for very young kids, since there's a complex plot and reasonably long running time. But there's plenty of slapstick for the kids and more sophisticated jokes for adults, so for anyone else, aged 6 to 86, it'll do very nicely.

(C) Farrows Creative

If you haven't read the story, you can read it either before or after, it won't spoil your enjoyment, either way. But if you've never read George MacDonald, I do recommend that you acquaint yourself with him. You could do a lot worse than starting with this production: I feel like he'd approve.

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