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Review of A Little Princess at The Royal Festival Hall

A Little PrincessIf you’ve been to any of the various seasonal adaptations of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol – in London, these range from one-man plays to musical productions with a symphony orchestra – the portrayal of the down and outs in society, as well as those who live in positions of power and privilege, would, hopefully, have been quite vivid. The novel A Little Princess, written by Frances Hodgson Burnett and first published in 1905, has characters that are either good with a capital G or bad with a capital B and in the good versus evil battle, it is pleasing that good wins out in the end.

This musical theatre adaptation sees the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra conducted by the show’s composer, Andrew Lippa, glide through what were mostly upbeat numbers, giving a consistently positive outlook that only fleetingly becomes dark. Sara Crewe (Jasmine Sakyiama), the daughter of the widowed Captain Crewe (Danny Mac, who, albeit for narrative purposes, we don’t see much of), having been born and raised in Africa, is being packed off to London to attend a boarding school run by Miss Minchin (Amanda Abbington, making her musical debut). This being the London of Dickens’ era, the conditions of the school are not exactly desirable.

Except that wasn’t emphasised nearly enough in this version of a Victorian story – so Victorian than Queen Victoria (Rosanna Hyland) makes an appearance – partly because of Crewe’s Pollyanna-esque approach to life, which only rankles Minchin all the more. Or did it? Although the chief antagonist, Abbington portrays her as someone whose hands are tied. Crewe’s family are wealthy, and having them on board helps balance the books, which would appear to be as good an excuse as any to extend tiny morsels of civility toward Crewe, though Minchin must tread carefully. There are the other pupils to consider, and their families – too many concessions given to Crewe would expose her to accusations of unfair treatment. Better then to be stern with everybody, including her own sister Amelia (a delightful Rebecca Trehearn).

Amanda Abbington and Danny Mac photo by Michael Warley
A Little Princess – photo by Michael Warley

The orchestra was never left idle for very long – a chair for Lippa’s use was barely utilised. Crewe’s imagination was so creative that at one point I gave up trying to make sense of what she was dreaming about and just enjoyed the fun and pleasure of it all. The performance was semi-staged, a term which could mean almost anything given the variety of ‘semi-staged’ shows I’ve seen over the years; here, it was a case of barely-staged and fully projected. The projections took the form of pages in an illustrated storybook, and some images were more effective than others. The costumes were quite splendid, and the use of both an ‘adult ensemble’ choir and a ‘children’s’ choir seemed a little superfluous at times, with the latter rather underused.

The show held the attention of the all-age audience, including all but the most restless of children. In the second half, Pasko (Adam J Bernard), the trusty assistant to Captain Crewe, gets a chance to bring the house down: they can take Bernard out of Dreamgirls, but it’s hard to take Dreamgirls out of the man. But the evening really belonged to Jasmine Sakyiama in the leading role of Sara Crewe.

There were three solo songs for her, ‘Live Out Loud’ (the musical’s ‘I wish’ number), ‘Soldier On’ and ‘Another World’, and she featured in perhaps at least half a dozen more. She has a wonderful stage presence and an accomplished singing vocal that betrays her (very) tender years. A star in the making? No. Simply a star.

That the darker elements of the novel are given only grudging attention in this adaptation means that Crewe’s “Papa!” exclamation doesn’t have anywhere near the emotional impact as the “Daddy, oh my Daddy!” line in The Railway Children. There are a few forays into the dispiriting aspects of the story, but for the most part, a palpable feel-good factor permeates proceedings. A sweet and sparkling show, I do hope there are further performances in the pipeline to follow.

4 stars

Review by Chris Comaweng

For one night only, see the UK premiere of this enchanting musical based on Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic childhood novel.

The Little Princess follows the story of Sara Crewe, a young girl who is sent from her home in Africa to a boarding school in London and separated from her father.

As Sara’s world is turned upside down, she must rely on her friends and imaginative powers to overcome her strict headmistress Miss Minchin and prove that every little girl deserves to be a princess.

This concert performance is presented by arrangement with Music Theatre International Europe.

LISTINGS INFO
A Little Princess
Music by Andrew Lippa
Book and Lyrics by Brian Crawley
Based on the novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Monday 28 May 2018 at 7.30pm

Royal Festival Hall
Southbank Centre,
Belvedere Rd,
Lambeth,
London SE1 8XX

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