Writer: Frances Hodgson Burnett
Adapted Book and lyrics: Carl Miller
Music and lyrics: Marc Folan
Additional lyrics: Adey Grummet
Director: Emily Gray
Reviewer: David Guest
There is something of a welcome and exciting renaissance in the world of youth theatre, with young people not only being given a chance to perform but also to appear in productions at well-regarded London venues. This access gives an invigorating edge to shows being staged and also opens up productions to wider audiences who may not automatically go to see things at schools or colleges.
The extraordinarily talented members of National Youth Music Theatre are in residency at The Other Palace (one of London’s topmost venues for experiment and development of new shows) until August 25 with three appealing musicals, the first of which boasts an energetic cast of more than 30 young people aged from 10 to 22 years.
A Little Princess is a reworked version of a Carl Miller and Marc Folan musical which first played off-Broadway in 2014 and is, quite simply, a joy to experience. This adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1905 classic children’s book veers away from the original story, with its idea that ultimately wealth and good fortune bring happiness and respect. Here kindness, friendship and a warm, selfless heart win the day, which allows the tale to have a more contemporary feel.
With the story having so many links to India, there is an alluring fusion of traditional South East Asian music (and some exquisite dance to go with it from choreographer Divya Kasturi) and more time-honoured musical form, creating a show that has cross-cultural appeal to tell a far-reaching tale. Jo Cichonska’s musical direction makes the blend effortless. Most of the orchestra also consists of young players.
Maya Sivagnanam (aged 14) plays the central role of Sara Crewe, sent to a boarding school from India by her rich father (a wonderfully mature performance by Tom Taplin, with a strong singing voice to match), and who remains strong-willed, generous and easily likeable. Maya plays the part with just the right amount of cordiality, vulnerability and naivety and shows off a sweet voice in her big numbers Who Am I Now? and Say Goodbye. Never once is her gentleness cloying, but an essential part of her character and the story itself.
With such a large cast – who work particularly effectively as an ensemble – it is almost unfair to concentrate on particular performances, but there’s confident playing from Hattie Candler (12) as the school dunce Ermengarde, who becomes Sara’s closest friend in good and bad times; Florence Russell (aged 20) as the frosty Miss Minchin, owner of the Seminary to which Sara is sent; Izzy Mackie (18) as her put-upon sister Amelia; Zoe Troy (13) as maid Becky; and Rhys Surtees (17) as Ram Dass, the friendly Indian lascar who does so much to help Sara after her father dies and it is realised there is no money to support her.
Much is made in this version of the discrepancy between the well-to-do and the destiture children living on the streets, led by Kiera Milward (14) as Anne. Perhaps there is an optimistic message reaching down through the years to the all-too-similar issues of today. The young casts’ enthusiasm and obvious enjoyment of the show is due in no small measure to director Emily Gray, who allows each member to have a moment in the limelight while never forgetting the importance of everyone working together to create the whole.
Miller and Folan’s music is always memorable and performed with an accomplishment of which many established professionals would be jealous. There are some gorgeous character songs including; Miss Minchin’s There is More to Life and Ermengarde’s hilarious I’m a Dunce (give that girl a best newcomer Olivier!) and well as strong narrative numbers, including the powerful Quartet.
A Little Princess is a right royal success, refreshing a much-loved story with class, ingenuity and dexterity, and which will surely leave all its audiences eagerly on the lookout for cast members in the future in what are set to be glittering careers.
Reviewed on 10 August 2018 | Image: Contributed