In the 1820s, a wealthy English couple who recently lost their daughter take in young girl arrested for begging. Convinced by her companion that she is a princess from a Pacific island who doesn’t speak any English, they are determined to look after her as their own, bringing her up in aristocratic society. The princess turns out to be no more than a lying servant girl from Devon, so Sir Charles Worrall and Lady Worrall rally their servants to perform the story of Princess Caraboo to a curious Victorian audience. Phil Willmott’s latest musical, inspired by true events, looks at how desperate times call for desperate measures and the “golden age” of the British Empire’s propensity for exploration and collecting exotic specimens. It’s a polished, well-made and potentially commercial work that, whilst not progressive in form or style, is crafted with detail and well performed.
The cast of ten have a commendable 50/50 gender split, though the male characters are generally more developed and distinct from each other. Eddie (Cristian James) is the charmingly meek orphaned nephew of Lord and Lady Worrall (the jolly Phil Sealey and warm, maternal Sarah Lawn), recently returned from adventures at sea. His budding relationship with the princess (Nikita Johal) is seriously sweet but not saccharine, and he’s a great foil to the laddish, bullying Lord Marlborough (Oliver Stanley, who has the makings of a fantastic villain). Johal as Princess Caraboo is physically expressive when in roles as the mostly non-speaking, smily princess, but is ferociously bold as Mary who does everything she can to escape her past. The ensemble work well together in the already small space, made smaller by a trio of on-stage musicians. Occasionally the space feels too crowded and the choreography consequently is a bit clumsy and restrained.
Willmott and Mark Collins’ music takes some time to build up to the most memorable numbers, but it finally smashes it with ‘My Own Person,’ Mary’s empowering anthem that carries through the rest of the two and half hour show as a reoccurring theme. The lyrics are a bit basic, but fit the modern, pop-musical style with some great large numbers. Willmott also wrote the book, which uses meta theatre to frame the story and address the theme of lying through both the Caraboo plot line and Lord Worrall’s lecture-like narrative evoking Greek philosopher Aracticus. Incorporating the Victorian search for enlightenment through knowledge adds an additional level to the historical context without making the main through-line too dense with exposition.
The set here is sparse, but it’s easy to picture something much more grand with a larger cast in the West End. Working well with the intimate playing space to create mood and setting is Jack Weir’s lighting design, often playing off the large piece of glass that is sometimes a mirror and sometimes transparent. The multiple storm scenes use LEDs to good effect, as well as contrasts in brightness and colour. The wonderful, happy aristocratic England and the workhouse where Mary lived are worlds apart thanks to Weir’s work.
Phil Willmott’s musical could easily be at home in a large, commercial venue but rather than wait for a big money backer, he puts it on the fringe. Though it lacks progressiveness in form, Princess Caraboo is polished and ready to go onto bigger and brighter things.
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