Princess Caraboo - Musical Theatre Review

Ahh The Finborough. A fantastic space recognised for producing exciting, innovative work. Princess Caraboo, a new musical by Phil Willmott, is a perfect example of such work and even though I enjoyed the story of the piece, certain elements brought this production back into the 21st Century, where it shouldn’t belong.

It tells the remarkable true story of a girl who escaped vagrancy in the 1800’s by pretending she was a ship-wrecked princess from the land of Carabata. As she gets deeper into the lie, she rises higher up the social class system and manages to fool everyone around her. It is not until it all comes crashing down that she realises the scandal she has caused to the people that she loves the most.

The cast within this musical are truly what make the production sing, if you’ll excuse the pun. The title character, played by Nikita Johal, had moments of real clarity. I truly believed that she couldn’t speak a word of English, so much so that when she uttered the words “Thanks my lover” in her flawless Devonshire accent, a little audible gasp escaped me! To transform from a gentle, waif-like creature into a devious woman with a plan was a joy to watch - not to mention her effortless and powerful belting voice that truly shone throughout the musical score.

The “love-interest” of this production was excellently played by Christian James. A confident, charismatic performance with a singing voice that tugged on your heartstrings. There were some lovely moments where Mr James flourished, but a personal highlight was watching his inner struggle with wanting to expose Princess Caraboo for what she really is, whilst at the same time falling madly in love with her.

Although the 10 cast members were strong, I found there were moments that jarred with the storytelling and the period in which it was set. Whilst the musical numbers were well-composed and sung wonderfully, the movement didn’t always have the same impact. The bizarre Fosse-style dance number at the beginning of the second half seemed a little odd for a production set in the 1820s and the jazz-hands musical theatre numbers occasionally looked like something from Hairspray. However, the ballroom scenes with a flowing waltz and even a hint of a pasodoble worked well and brought us into the world of the play.

The Finborough Theatre is a compact space, therefore the staging had to be very innovative and clever in order to hold 10 actors, plus dance numbers and props. Designer, Toby Burbidge should be applauded for his work on this show. To have dolls houses moved onto set in order to identify the different locations within the piece was truly inspired. The simple nudging of the model ship hanging on the wall to signify the stormy seas immediately gave us a sense of space while keeping the staging to a minimum. A clever device that all other fringe productions should take note of.

What struck me about this production in terms of message was the exposure of the class system and how people value it. Here was this exotic, wealthy Princess that entered into the boring life of aristocrats and she made everything interesting. Yet when she was exposed as a liar, everyone’s opinions changed. She caused public scandal, was thrown out of the house and forced back onto the streets from whence she came. Even her fiance, the wealthy Lord Marlborough (Oliver Stanley) who thought she was the most beautiful girl in the world resorted to calling her a “bitch” and a “vixen.” The idea of mocking the system was just too much for this group of upper-classers and gave the production the powerful themes of wealth and greed.

Phil Willmott is obviously a very talented and clever man. His story was gripping and had me on the edge of my seat at times. The musical score, composed by Willmott and Mark Collins, was poignant, beautiful and (most importantly) MEMORABLE! I was singing the final song all the way to the bar and beyond!

Overall, an enjoyable evening is to be had watching this show and some lovely singing is to be expected, but certain theatrical elements didn’t create the wow factor that I was expecting from a new musical such as this.

Princess Caraboo runs until 22nd April.

(c) 2016 Molly Miller

The Steam Industry http://www.philwillmott.org/the-steam-industry.html
http://www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk/productions/2016/princess-caraboo.php

DATE SEEN 31/3/16
VENUE The Finborough
RUN DATES 30th March - 22nd April
START TIME 19.30
DURATION 2 hours 30 minutes
CAST NAMES Nikita Johal - Princess Caraboo
Christian James - Eddie Harvey
Sarah Lawn - Lady Elizabeth Worrell
Phil Sealey - Sir Charles Worrell
Oliver Stanley - Lord Marlborough
Joseph O’Malley - Osvaldo Agathias
Althea Burey - Ensemble
Ruben Kuppens - Ensemble
Hilary Murnane - Ensemble
Rebecca Ridout - Ensemble

CREW NAMES
Playwright - Phil Willmott
Composer - Phil Willmott and Mark Collins
Director - Phil Willmott
Musical Director - Freddie Tapner
Designer - Toby Burbidge
Lighting Designer - Jack Weir
Sound Designer - James Nicholson
Costume Designer - Penn O’Gara
Choreographer - Thomas Michael Voss

Author's review: 
3