The Little Prince
A flight of fancy on a paper airplane, but they haven't got all the rough edges off yet
Nicholas Lloyd-Webber and James D Reid’s musical adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupery's The Little Prince arrives at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast with a paper airplane, a light show and a score full of toe-tapping musical numbers.
‘Why are grown-ups so very odd?’ Niamh Perry’s boyish blonde cropped Little Prince queries the audience earnestly. That is, essentially, the central tenet of The Little Prince, of course. It is all about becoming an adult or staying a child, the benefits and the drawbacks.
Maybe the audience should accept the Little Prince as real, or maybe it is all the dehydrated fever dream of the Pilot, played by Kare Conradi, in the desert – all analogy and metaphor and slices of psyche.
Lloyd-Webber and Reid give the proponents of the second interpretation a lot to work with. The introductory flash-back sequence casts Perry as the young Pilot, and both characters have their very own Rose, Cassandra Compton, whom they abandon when she grows demanding and rebukes their perceived neglect.
The Pilot takes to the skies in search of adventure, eventually crash-landing in the desert. There is a delightful quirk to the nature of his plane that I will leave unspoiled.
Meanwhile, the Little Prince hitches a lift with some migratory birds and flies from asteroid to asteroid in search of a new friend. Each asteroid is inhabited by an usual character – a king, a businessman, a drunk and a lamplighter – who are all played by the Conradi. Well, it gives the adults in the audience something to think about while the kids learn ‘Draw the Sheep’ off by heart.
The first half of the show is actually a little slow. It gets off to a good start with ‘True Stories from Nature’, the rosy look back at the Pilot’s rough and tumble school days, and Rose’s sassy salsa arrival on Asteroid B612.
However, the first act starts to drag a little during the latter stages of the Little Prince’s planet-hopping and eventual arrival on earth.
The scenes themselves are entertaining, it just feels like they last that little bit too long, in particular when the Little Prince arrives on earth. The cast all abandon the stage and the audience spend a good minute (that feels like five) watching a projection of earth spin closer.
A bit more enunciation from the cast wouldn't have gone amiss, both vocal and physical. In a few songs the arrangement results in the music actually drowning out the singers. It also happens with a few of the stronger singers, their voices just overpowering their co-singers.
Some of the actors also seem to play their roles in a quite contained, tight way. It makes the stage feel too big and too empty. Not to mention the question of whether people at the back can see the more subtle expressions or gestures. In particular, Perry seems so tense that she barely bends her legs. It is like her ankles have locked.
Body language is such an important part of theatre, particularly musical theatre, that this element really jars. It is surprising that the performances aren’t more polished at this stage of the production. Presumably it is something that Deborah Maguire, the choreographer, and director Richard Croxford are working on.
The second half, however, is much better. Pacing is kept on an even keel, the songs are a good mix of the quirky and the sentimental, and the cast actually seem comfortable in their roles. No one, for example, could accuse the Snake or the Fox of not making full use of the stage. Sophie May Wake as the Fox conveys the transformation from feral to tame with grace and energy.
One of the most successful scenes features ‘The Elephant and the Snake’. In it the Snake dines on an elephant. ‘I’ll have indigestion for a year,’ she sings eagerly, stretching herself around the Pilot in elephant padding as if to see if he’ll fit.
The other star that deserves a mention is Gary McCann's rather odd and wonderful set. It’s made of light. Screens in the form of giant sheets of paper are set on the stage, the curled corners and edges providing places for actors to hide, and the set is projected on it.
The aesthetic is reminiscent of children’s drawings, with fields of endless yellow corn and rough squiggles depicting the rays of the amber coloured sun. It wouldn’t work for every production, but it does for this one. It captures the slightly antique charm of the prose and illustrations of the novel.
The Little Prince is most certainly a fun night out, but this is a production that is still to find its feet.
The Little Prince is at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast until January 15.