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This new musical is based on the true story of a West Country vagrant who fooled ‘society’ into believing her to be an exotic princess. It was the subject of a 1994 film (co-written by John Wells, no less) and a 2012 novel by Catherine Johnson, but I’d never heard of it! It was intended for a big-scale production in Bristol, but that never materialised, so the Finborough Theatre has the privilege of presenting its world premiere.

An Iberian sailor introduces the ‘princess’ to benevolent aristocrats Sir Charles & Lady Elizabeth Worrall. She reminds them of their dear departed daughter and they ‘adopt’ her and introduce her to society. Their destitute nephew Eddie returns from his travels at sea and attempts to decipher her language, in the process of which he falls for her and she for him. His old school chum, now Lord Marlborough, a better catch, also courts her, though his attraction seems to be more lust than love. She is eventually found out and her benefactors humiliated by The Times revelations of the truth. She returns to poverty before finding her escape route.

It’s good subject matter for a musical and Phil Willmott has done a very good job adapting it for the stage, though the opening is a bit muddled as we’re presented with an illustrated ‘lecture’ by Worrall, with scenes played out by his staff. The lecture as narration might work better on its own without the play-within-a-play idea. The shows strongest point is a lovey, tuneful score by Willmott and Mark Collins, here very well sung (though occasionally a touch more vocal restraint by some would have made it even better) with excellent orchestrations played by a trio of keyboards, violin & winds led by MD Freddie Tapner

You can see how it would work on a bigger scale, though it works perfectly well on this scale, with ten performers playing all of the roles. Choreographer Thomas Michael Voss even manages to get some effective dance & movement in this tiny space. The production values are very good, with a simple uncluttered design by Toby Burbridge, making particularly good use of a large mirror and models of houses and ships, and Penn O’Gara’s costumes are excellent. It’s a fine cast without a weak link. Phil Sealey and Sarah Lawn were delightful as the Worrall’s, Christian James made a charming Eddie and Nikita Johal a fine Princess. I was particularly impressed by Oliver Stanley as Marlborough, as close to a baddie as we get in this show.

It’s refreshing to have a new musical whose setting isn’t contemporary, which has more than four characters and which isn’t Sondheimesque! I’m sure this won’t be its last outing, but anyone interested in musical theatre should head for the Finborough in the next two weeks.

 

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