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Belt Up Theatre's A Little Princess
Published on Sunday, 12 August 2012
4

4 stars

C venues - C nova (venue website)
Theatre
2-27 Aug, 6:30pm-7:30pm
Reviewed by Richard Stamp

 Family-friendly. Suitable for all ages.

On their recent trips to Edinburgh, Belt Up Theatre have made paying homage to children’s authors something of a theme.  A couple of years ago, it was JM Barrie; in 2011 they turned to Lewis Carroll, and this time round it’s… well, that would be telling.  If you don’t already know who wrote the novella which gives this play its name, stay away from Wikipedia – and enjoy the surprise of spotting the author’s far more famous story, whose essential features Belt Up have skilfully worked in.

York-based Belt Up are feted for their fourth-wall-busting interactivity, but they should really be known for the quality of their writing.  Artistic Co-Director Jethro Compton has crafted his script around a series of proper soliloquies, which manage to explore some dreamily quixotic concepts without ever losing sight of the real, cruel world.  If you believe in something hard enough, he asks, does that somehow make it true?  Could we all be princes and princesses, if only in our own minds?  And most piquantly, when all else is lost, dare you retreat into a dream?

As central character Sara, Serena Manteghi carries all these monologues, and more.  It’s the first time I’ve seen her in a leading role, and she’s a true revelation: earnest and believable, able to switch from childlike playfulness to searing introspection with just a few steps across the stage.  I can’t imagine anyone giving better voice to Compton’s words, and at times her portrayal of Sara’s secret vulnerability left me genuinely moved.

It’s a relatively traditional production, but Belt Up’s trademark immersiveness is naturally still there.  Sitting on boxes and cushions around all four walls of the room, we feel like true observers in another person’s home – and at times, we’re expected to join in with their festivities, too.  I’m not sure whether the interactivity really contributes to the storyline, but it certainly helps drive the mood, turning one particular plot twist from a predictable box-tick to a heartbreaking tragedy.  And Joe Hufton, who’s impressed me before as an actor, shows a deft hand in the director’s role; sudden, unexpected moments of tenderness punctuate the storyline, eloquently spotlit by a gesture, a touch, or simply a pause.

There were details, though, which felt a little lazy – or perhaps more charitably, weren’t given the attention they deserved.  The heartless Miss Minchin is potentially an interesting character, but we never learn quite why she’s so ready to abuse her power – she’s left a one-dimensional stereotype, for all that she’s wittily and imperiously played.  Kind-hearted servant Lionel was also a little too broadly-drawn for my taste; while he didn’t actually ever tug his forelock, something of that nature always seemed mere moments away.  I’d happily sacrifice one of the numerous plays-within-a-play if it left time to put a bit more flesh on these particular bones.

But despite all quibbles, playwright Compton pulls it out of the bag at the end.  Just when it seems there’s only one possible conclusion – and that it’s going to prove annoyingly trite – he whisks the final curtain aside, replacing what we thought we’d been watching with something different again.  I’m not sure I picked up on every last allusion in his many-layered plot, but it really doesn’t matter.  There’s a noble beauty to his soaring script… and some genuinely profound questions to follow you home.

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FROM OUR ARCHIVES

These are archived reviews of shows from Edinburgh 2012.  We keep our archives online as a courtesy to performers, and for readers who'd like to research previous years' reviews.

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