This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com
In 1820, the world was shrinking. The opening song of Phil Willmott’s charming new musical, based on a true story, tells us that the future Victorian Empire builders of the Regency period were imagining elephants and giraffes and expecting England to be “host to the exotic, Quixotic wonders ‘cross the seven seas”. What actually arrives does not quite live up to those expectations. As a scene-setter for a musical, Bring on the 1820s, with its witty and wise Coward-like lyric and stirring chorus harmonies, is about as good as it gets. Society of the day, seemingly made up of male upper class twits and twittering women, is, Willmott reminds us, that of a Jane Austen novel and its members treat a young woman washed up on a beach as an exotic creature from some unknown far off land. The young woman is given the name “Princess Caraboo”, assuming her to be royalty, but maybe she is not what she seems. Nikita Johal, petite, doe-eyed and with beaming smile, is the perfect “Princess”, adding dashes of mischief and cunning to her natural charm. Her suitor is Eddie (Christian James), a lad nicknamed “mouse” and labelled by the toffs as “the school runt”, who struggles earnestly to curtail the opportunistic instincts of his “Princess” as she sets out to exploit her good fortune. The show’s conceit is that the rotund, bearded and jocular Sir Charles Worrall (Phil Sealey) is delivering a lecture to the audience on the subject of deception, using the Caraboo story to illustrate his points, with the servants in his household playing all the parts. Strong support comes from Sarah Lawn as the maternal Lady Worrall and Oliver Stanley as Lord Marlborough, who vies with Eddie for Caraboo’s hand. Willmott’s skills for constructing a musical and using songs to tell a story are evident throughout. The show moves effortlessly between the frivolity of Gilbert and Sullivan comic operettas and romantic melodrama in the Phantom mould, with Willmott, and co-composer Mark Collins, providing a suitably varied and rich score. Musical director Freddie Tapner’s three-piece band (strings, woodwind and keyboards) does full justice to the music. With a company of ten, imaginative dance routines, choreographed by Thomas Michael Voss, push the limits of the tiny Finborough, but they give life to the show and add amusing comic touches. Toby Burbidge’s set, dominated by a large gilded mirror, overcomes space constraints by using just a mahogany desk, a Chippendale chair and miniatures of a Georgian house and a sailing ship to create a period feel. It is only in the final quarter, when the plot twists a couple of times too often and tunes become slightly repetitive, that the show perhaps needs a little more work. Its theme is fakery, but, in the world of fringe musicals, Princess Caraboo looks pretty close to being the real deal.
Performance date: 1 April 2016