Brighton Fringe 2022
“You’re searching for an answer that is always out of sight / Only with the heart can one see right.” That’s the song that closed the show, and it’s really the core message of this production.
‘The Little Prince’ is probably the widest-read of all children’s books. Since its first publication in 1945 it’s been translated into dozens of languages and dialects all around the world, and sold an estimated one hundred and forty million copies. My feeling is that the book has become rather less well-known in this country in recent years, though, so it was a real joy to see a production at The Rotunda Theatre’s pop-up Bubble in Brighton’s Regency Square. This one’s a musical adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s novella: written by Sam Chittenden, with music by Simon Scardanelli.
The Rotunda Bubble is quite small, with a shallow rake of bench seating facing the acting area. Delphine du Barry’s set was all black – a backdrop curtain behind, studded with small silver stars and a crescent moon; a low block to our left and some bits and pieces to our right. There was a large brown tin trunk, the sort people used to take on boat trips, and an object that seemed to be a cross between an orrery and a cake stand. It had what looked like large gear wheels at the base, though without the model sun and planets that move, and there were several upward-facing rods, a foot or so high, supporting small plates. I was intrigued to see what would develop …
Then The Aviator appeared, a tall man in a black leather flying jacket and goggles, who proceeded to tell us his story. He’s Saint-Exupéry, of course, and in the nineteen thirties he had been a pilot flying mail across the North African deserts. On one flight his engine failed and he was forced to crash-land miles from civilization. After many days, he was eventually rescued by nomadic tribesmen, and the experience became the foundation of ‘The Little Prince’.
Jake Snowdon has a strong, rich voice, and he explained that before becoming a pilot, and having his crash; as a child he had done sketches of animals, that no adults could really understand. So it maybe wasn’t so strange to be woken one morning in the desert by the voice of a child asking for a drawing … of a sheep! This is how the book itself begins – with The Aviator’s first meeting with The Little Prince.
If you know it, then you’ll be familiar with Saint-Exupéry’s drawings. The Little Prince was exactly how he appears in the book – a slight figure, clad in pale green trousers and shirt with a red bow-tie, with the piping voice of a child and his rather elfin face topped by a mop of golden-blonde hair. Except that it wasn’t his face but rather hers – Rosa Samuels played the Prince, her own dark hair underneath a gold wig; and she was a perfect foil to Jake Snowdon’s Aviator, her higher pitched lines contrasting with his deeper adult tones.
Samuels looked and sounded like I’ve always imagined the Little Prince to be, but it was her acting which transfixed me. Mesmerising. The show’s about an hour and a half long, with dialogue and songs, and for the whole time she was reacting to other characters’ lines, her wide, bright eyes making contact with theirs so intensely that it didn’t feel like theatre, but that we were watching a real child trying to make sense of the perplexing adults he found himself amongst.
There were many. The Little Prince had come down to Earth from a very small asteroid where he lived, and he told the Aviator about the inhabitants of the other planets he’s visited. As he did so, they placed small asteroid models on the orrery plates I mentioned earlier, so we got the feeling of him travelling between the stars. There was The Rose (rather prickly in temperament, and very self-centred) on his own world, then on the next planet he met a King, obsessed with being in charge, ruling everything, even the stars above. Then he’d met a Businessman, determined in his case to own the stars, counting them into his ledger and storing the records in a bank. And there were more …
All these characters were played by the two other cast members, whose performance can only be described as protean. Katey Ann Fraser and Mark Beauchamp played eight separate individuals with different body language and speech patterns, including The Fox (who needed to be tamed) and The Snake, whose hissing lines promised the Prince a way to return home. Different costumes for each character – a lot of quick changes behind the background curtain – and a new song for each appearance. It was hard to believe that all this was created by just this hugely versatile pair of actors.
Lots of songs because it’s a musical, remember. Sam Chittenden had stuck closely to the book’s words for the dialogue, but she’d written a complete set of songs for the various scenes, with words that fitted Saint-Exupéry’s philosophy perfectly, and which were beautifully given life by Simon Scardanelli’s music. I’m still humming one of the tunes as I write this.
So what exactly is the philosophy of ‘The Little Prince’? On the surface, it’s a book for children, but it resonates with many adults too. Does anyone remember ‘A Martian sends a postcard home’ by Craig Raine? The poet wrote a set of short pieces, describing everyday events on Earth from the perspective of an outsider. ‘The Little Prince’ takes much the same approach, though written decades earlier, and manages to point up so many of our human foibles.
All the characters The Prince meets are reflections of our human obsession with wealth, status and frenetic activity – but finally it’s being able to love, and to see clearly the world around us, that are the truly important things. Saint-Exupéry dedicated the book to a friend, with these words – ‘I will dedicate this book to the child from whom this grown-up grew. All grown-ups were once children – though few of them remember it.’
I said earlier that Rosa Samuels’ performance was mesmerising, but I thought the entire show was magical. So if you have a child – or if you’re still a child yourself inside – go and see ‘The Little Prince’. You won’t be disappointed – you certainly won’t forget it in a hurry – and it might just change your life.