When I was little I had a Jackanory audio tape which I would listen to as I fell asleep. On one side Kenneth Williams read William Thackaray’s The Rose and the Ring, and on the other some unknown theatrical voice intoned two of Oscar Wilde’s fairy stories, The Nightingale and the Rose, and The Happy Prince. English Cabaret’s version of this latter tale carries all the worst traits of television Jackanory, but loses Wilde’s dreamlike world of rich imagery and declamatory speech.
This is a play-within-a-play, in which three youngsters demand a tale from a musical magician, played by the show’s writer Sue Casson. Along the way the kids allegedly gain something from their experience, although they are far from transformed. One wants to fly like a bird, he gets to play the Swallow. Another wants to be mighty, he gets to play the Prince. The young girl wishes to learn about the magic of theatre. She does. The meta-level ‘company-of-actors’ shtick sat uncomfortably with Wilde’s fairytale, and any moralising done by the cast came from the narrative frame rather than from the narrative. Casson seems to have imposed a meaning upon the story which, for me at least, just isn’t there.
Her music, on the other hand, was occasionally brilliant. The Prince’s lament had a strikingly beautiful melody with sorrowful folk inflections. It was the in-story music that I enjoyed the most, since the ‘real world’ songs tended towards the bland Seventies soft-pop of early Schwartz, for example. At its best, the score reminded me of the work of Richard Rodney Bennett – childlike but never childish, and certainly not straight-forwards. Unfortunately the singing voices, perhaps tired, didn’t show off Casson’s compositions as well as they could have. Most of the noticeable acting came from Casson, although Tom Dawkins as the Prince may have shone, given more to do. He was playing a statue, after all.
As much as I love the Wilde original, I cannot recommend this show which hacks apart his delicate prose, and enforces an arbitrary message. For an ardent Wilde fan, English Cabaret’s The Happy Prince was hard to swallow.