Venue: Finborough Theatre, London
Producer: Bristol Old Vic
Director: Phil Willmott
Musical director: Freddie Tapner
Author: Phil Willmott
Music: Phil Willmott and Mark Collins.
Dates of run: March 30-April 22.
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes including interval.
Cast includes: Althea Burey, Christian James, Nikita Johal, Ruben Kuppens, Sarah Lawn, Hilary Murnane, Joseph O’Malley, Rebecca Ridout, Phil Sealey, Oliver Stanley.
Some lies are so pleasant that we cheerfully believe them.
It’s the premise that underlies the illusory appeal of theatre and especially musical theatre.
And it makes the 19th-century scandal of a beautiful young woman who lied her way from rags to riches by pretending to be a shipwrecked princess perfect subject-matter for Phil Willmott, one of the nation’s most adept musical theatre professionals.
His telling is at once derivative and original. All the classic ingredients of a well-made musical play are there: young love, simple, memorable melodies, and a feel-good escapist plot.
But then there is a twist as the heroine is not just an actress, but an habitual liar. As they spiral out of control, her lies add suspense and unpredictability to what would otherwise be a foregone conclusion.
On top of that, we’re forced, albeit not terribly critically, to reflect on how society has barely moved on from the 1820s England of the play, in which society gullibly believed whatever it wanted to and reacted in fury when it found it had been duped.
The impact of all of the above is somehow magnified and intensified as a drama designed for a large stage, but not yet performed on one, is shoe-horned for its world premiere run into the tiny space of the Finborough.
Under Willmott’s direction, the collective ensemble sound is thrilling, although, if you want to be picky, it is nearly always fortissimo and the outwardly dainty heroine (Nikita Johal) is a little shrill.
Fortunately, Johal’s not-too-refined Princess Caraboo is offset by her mellow beau Christian James as Eddie Harvey, who fights a losing and rather naive battle for the moral highground.
If the music is not sufficiently nuanced, the story’s darker hues could be sharpened. That said, Harvey’s old school rival, the Regency Rake Lord Marlborough – a part relished by Oliver Stanley – delivers some genuinely nasty bullying menace.
Looking on as the loveably eccentric, benign older generation are Sir Charles and Lady Worrall (Phil Sealey and Sarah Lawn).
Their sentimentality could leave them open to being crushed by the harsh reality of the final revelations, but in the spirit of the musical, we’re delivered an ending that somehow keeps everyone happy. For any audience minded to suspend its disbelief, the result is a heart-warming evening.
Barbara Lewis © 2016.