Edinburgh Fringe 2012
By now, you really shouldn’t need us to tell you to get along to an Belt Up show. In fact, stop reading this now. Go on, go ..
A favourite topic of conversation while loitering in lines for shows this year seems to be what Belt Up show is your favourite. The possibility that you might not have a favourite, or indeed, not seen a Belt Up show at all, appears not to be considered. It’s easy to see why. For the record, this show – A Little Princess – is likely to be this reviewer’s favourite.
You’re ushered in by a authoritive school mistress with a lack of patience and, startlingly, a over abundance of beard. Given the quick turnaround Fringe shows are meant to have, you can’t help thinking that each show should have a steward like this. This is immersive theatre, and almost immediately, members of the audience are given roles and tasks to deliver. It’s worth noting that any audience member who’s given a job is empowered, and made to feel like a genuine star of the show.
It’s genuinely a different world, and, importantly, a different world that feels like it is trying to be the same – like a Bedouin tent filled with the symbols of British upper class. The sightlines aren’t always clear, and naked bulbs mean that characters faces occasionally disappear into the gloom. This seems to be deliberate, however, giving the impression of hazy, beautiful memories of a fondly remembered childhood.
Serena Manteghi (as Sara Crewe) is a wide eyed storyteller any Daddy would be proud of, brilliantly charismatic and gorgeous. Such is the power of Manteghi’s storytelling, when she gestures to a person the audience know can’t possibly be there, the audience look anyway, caught up in her belief. The villain of the piece describes her as ‘such an original child!’ – not necessarily meant as a compliment – and she’s a great guide, enabling us to share in her innocent wonder. Since the whole point of the hour is to remember the importance of suspending disbelief, this is vital. This is a salute to the power of little girls, and their beliefs and hopes. Naivety isn’t such a very bad thing; in fact it’s something to be cherished and celebrated.
Despite being based on a children’s story, this isn’t precisely a children’s show, and indeed your perception of what the play is actually about, and who its target audience is meant to be – may alter depending on who you are – it’s likely you’ll particularly get a kick out of proceedings if you a) have ever been a little girl, or b) are a man of fathering age/inclination. Fundamentally, this is a love story, if not necessarily a romance, but of a little girl and her daddy, while still managing to be harder edged than that sounds.
After the show, you might feel compelled to write a letter (yes, a letter) to the wide eyed innocent in your life, whether it’s the daughter, grandchild, sister or niece, and let them know that they’ll always be a princess. We’re told that Sara’s flights of fancy are simply that, ‘just a girl’s imagination,’, whereas the entire piece serves to remind us that there is nothing ‘just’ about a girl’s imagination.
‘We have come too far not to have a happy ending,’ declares one character at one point. A happy ending is not guaranteed, however, even if we do witness both father and daughter in different locations longing to be reunited with each other – such is the atmosphere, it’s impossible not to picture Jenny Agutter bursting from the smoke calling ‘Daddy, my Daddy!’ A word of warning, then: the audience is seated so that everyone can be seen by everyone else. By the time the play is done, you’ll be glad of that dim lighting, and may need to bring a tissue: because there really will be tears before bedtime.