Bill Hagerty is tickled by the Finborough's musical about a 19th century deception
Experiencing an old-fashioned musical about deception and gullibility is like a massage with a feather duster.
When, in 1820, an aristocratic couple were convinced that a homeless girl was actually an exotic princess and promptly provided her with bed, board and a burgeoning reputation, someone might have noted that the story was a stage musical just waiting to be written. Presumably someone didn’t, leaving Phil Willmott, a skilled writer and director, to seize upon the idea almost a couple of centuries later.
Its progress to the stage was erratic and seemed to grind to a halt when the Bristol Old Vic failed to obtain financial backing for a full-scale glitzy production. So here it is, shoehorned into the Finborough with a cast of ten, orchestral support from keyboards, clarinet and violin and nothing much else other than the belief that if a tale’s worth telling it should be told, no matter what.
Quite right, too. Princess Caraboo certainly deserves exposure to the modern public, even if its antecedents are far from contemporary – think Julian Slade, or Sandy Wilson, or even early Lionel Bart – and its premise and plot undemanding to the point of making some modern examples of musical theatre look suitable only for psychology students.
Here we have the kindly Sir Charles Worrall delivering a lecture on lying and how distortion of the truth can soon be considered fact if told skilfully and frequently enough. The Worralls and the servants they employ then act out the Caraboo fantasy, with the ‘Princess’ doing little except mumble the occasional phrase of gobbledegook until a well-meaning and subsequently smitten artist, plus various know-all ‘experts’, conclude she hails from an island in the Caspian Sea. What’s more, she’s royal, which means soon she is accepted warmly by the idle rich and, indeed, sought after by smart society
When artist Eddie (Christian James) stumbles on the truth he doesn’t disown her. Unlike the Hans Christian Andersen’s small boy who recognises that the king’s new clothes are actually a figment of the craven crowd’s imagination, Eddie stays schtum. But the truth will out – well, sometimes – and the Princess is eventually rumbled, causing chaos among the populace and heaping humiliation on the arrogant Regency buck Lord Marlborough (Oliver Stanley), who’d planned to make her his bride.
I’m not sure if history records the ‘Princess’s’ fortunes after she exited the scenario for America, but Willmott is right to provide an ending happy enough to make one feel warm all over. He has also written, with Mark Collins, some pleasant tunes and, by himself, mostly lucid lyrics: the rollicking Just Say Yes and what becomes Caraboo’s anthem, I Am My Own Person, are songs that could hold their head high in any company.
As Princess Caraboo, Nikita Johal makes a winsome schemer and has a voice of considerable range that might have shattered a wine glass or two if those in the auditorium were not made of plastic. And the bearded, barrel-chested Phil Sealey deserves credit for a performance sometimes reminiscent of the equally so Brian Blessed as Sir Charles Worrall.
And that’s the truth.
Princess Caraboo is at the Finborough Theatre from Tuesday to Saturday Evenings at 7.30pm with Saturday and Sunday Matinees at 3pm.
The production lasts approximately two hours and 30 minutes including one interval.
Tickets are priced £16, £14 concessions till April 12, then £18, £16 concessions. Book online or call the box office on 0844 847 1652.
April 6, 2016