Sue Casson’s musical adaptation if Oscar Wilde’s short story, “The Happy Prince” is billed as a family show, but it’s difficult to see children appreciating it. It’s a dark tale, with a characteristic fin-de-siecle equation of love and death. A Prince’s statue hides the soul of the Prince, who is perpetually frozen in sorrow for his unhappy life. A swallow comes and redeems his soul by devoting himself to spreading sweetness and light and alleviating the sufferings of the poor. Exhausted by his efforts, and refusing to leave the Prince even though Summer has fled, he dies. The statue sheds tears, as the Prince unthaws, and this sanctifies the bird’s ascent to heaven. Written thus, it sounds absurdly sentimental, but Wilde gets away with it in the extravagance of his rich language and gesture.
Children are equally likely to be deterred by the essentially static nature of the production. There is a lot of exposition; characters talk about what they are going to do/have done, rather than showing it. There’s also a lot of padding introducing characters and playing with the audience by the magician/narrator. A freer, more dynamic treatment would work better.
Not that there aren’t good things lurking within the show. Sue Casson’s music is haunting, atmospheric and fits the scenario well, while her lyrics are serviceable. But she is not well served by the cast or director. This is a family show in the sense that all Casson’s family seem to be involved: her children Robert and Lily Blackmore play the swallow and Pandora, a girl who receives the generosity of the Prince, while her partner Tom Blackmore directs. Casson herself narrates and plays keyboards.
It is perhaps unkind to base judgements on a first performance after a speedy set-up, where the cast are clearly lacking in confidence and uncertain of moves. However, even when it’s settled down, I can’t see this production acquiring the pizzazz and sense of visual style the material needs; while it would take a considerable number of singing lessons to give Robert the technical skills to sustain the notes and punch out the lyrics of his quite complex songs. Andrew Bolton as a rather mature Prince is uncomfortable as well with the tessitura of the Prince, which severely taxes his upper register. Only Casson herself seems serene and at home in the music she wrote.
It all suggests to me that sometimes keeping things in the family is not such a good idea. An outside eye might bring a critical judgement to what works and what doesn’t, and liberate the rather earthbound treatment so that it can fly, which it undoubtedly could in the right hands.