Brighton Fringe 2022
Hans Christian Andersen’s classic tale of legumes, bedding and royal lineage verification methods is presented in glorious sunshine by a highly skilled trio of ballet dancers.
It’s a funny ol’ story, isn’t it? I mean, there’s no discernible moral, the central conceit about the pea under the mattresses is pretty bizarre, and the gender roles and supposition that the eponymous Princess will acquiesce to the Prince’s advances are decidedly pre-#MeToo. The Princess and the Pea is a tale that is very much ripe for revamping for the modern era.
Contrary to claims made in the programme notes, the interpretation presented by Let’s All Dance! today is not that revamp. The choreographer/designer claims to have adapted the story for modern times by giving the Princess a “distinctive personality” and a pair of glasses; fleshing characters out with personality is the bread and butter of adapting short stories for the stage, and I’m not sure that glasses are quite the radical overhaul he thinks they are. Hans Christian Andersen’s tale is presented largely unembellished, and, other than a throwaway sentiment along the lines of “Well I wouldn’t have minded if she wasn’t a real princess because we’re in love and that’s what’s important”, unencumbered by concerns of political correctness. (But enough about what the show isn’t: let’s move on.)
To my admittedly untrained eye, the dancing is faultless and highly skilled. My 5-year-old daughter, who knows much more about ballet than I do, tells me that the Princess (Sam Rodulfo) dances best, and I defer to her superior judgement, though it’s a close call because all three of them are really rather wonderful.
I do, however, know a thing or two about comic timing and the art of performing for the children, not just to them, and in this regard, the Prince (James Aiden Kay) wins hands down. There is perhaps a rigidity inherent in the medium of ballet that makes it difficult for the performers to respond appropriately to the Panto-esque “He’s-behind-the-bed!!!!!”-type interjections that the young audience delights in, and that the staging invites. The Prince is the only character who gives a fair bash at breaking the fourth wall, and his duet with a hobby horse is hilarious.
Young people today are swamped with such an unfathomable quantity of language-driven narratives, both on screens and on stage, that it is refreshing to see a show that succeeds in telling its story with very little spoken word at all. On only about three occasions does a narrator’s voice (in a wonderful Scottish accent) add a few words of explanation and a few character lines, while the actors themselves stay silent throughout. It is fascinating to hear the young people in the audience fill the void by eagerly narrating the action to their adults – “I think he thinks she’s pretty”, “She’s cross because she doesn’t like the bed”. Conversely, I hear very few “Why…”s or “What’s going on?”s. The purely physical and extremely clear form empowers the kids to storytell the action for themselves, whether in their heads or out loud.
A quick paragraph about the theatre where all this takes place. OMG. Brighton Open Air Theatre is such an amazing setting, a beautifully-designed thrust stage with tiered horseshoe auditorium, in a lush leafy park. While I’m sure the weather isn’t always as kind to its audiences as it was today, it’s always gotta be worth the risk.
I really enjoyed this show, and my 5-year-old was buzzing. Hopefully it is exactly the inspiration she needs to keep at her ballet classes, for which her enthusiasm has been lagging of late. It won’t win any awards for reinterpretation, but I don’t think such awards exist, so that’s all right.