The Happy Prince at The Place: ‘in a sound state but it’s yet to take flight’

Adapting a short story must be tricky. Granted the story is by Oscar Wilde, but, with music and lyrics by Hal Cazalet and a book by Michael Barry, The Happy Prince feels slightly muddled and confused. Showcased at The Place with direction from Cazalet, at present the show is in a sound state but it’s yet to take flight.

Wilde’s story is about a young swallow who helps alleviate the poverty in her town by sharing the gem-encrusted parts of the statue of the Happy Prince that is in the centre of the town. When alive, the Prince was confined to his palace but now he is forced to see the suffering of the local residents. 

As mentioned above, this is a showcase production of The Happy Prince. Given the limited eighteen days of rehearsal and stripped-back production at The Place, this is a solid production already. The strength of the work is certainly Cazalet’s music, which offers enough variety to be entertaining throughout but threatens by the end to be almost repetitive. The choreography by Michael Barry, Sophia Hurdley and Sam Archer is also neat and light-footed, though the final dance routine between the swallow and the statue is overlong.

The book is where The Happy Prince needs more consideration. This may need to begin with a stronger sense of the target audience of the piece: the show was at its best when it accepted the surreal quality of the fairy-tale mode with dances in Egyptian masks and a vividly-lit song about the harsh reality of working for The Mayor. The didactic nature of Wilde’s story is retained during the production, but this is in place of a driving narrative movement. The return to the frame narrative at the end was also disappointing because this world is not given enough time at the show’s opening to breathe; abandoning the world of a munificent statue and his swallow aide to the grime of a Victorian workhouse just does not feel quite right. 

The performances at this showcase were also committed. Sophia Hurdley as the Swallow floats across the stage, and Sam Archer as the Prince has a rich voice. Janie Dee and Phil Daniels are the antagonists of the show and offer fun performances though more could be done with both characters.

Watching The Happy Prince, I was struck by its satirical portrayal of greed. The poorer members of the town form the bedrock of this show and maybe this needs more development as the show progresses. As so often with literature of the period, the grime beneath the human stories is evident in each character. A greater sense of variety amongst these townspeople, an edited book that further accentuates the fairy-tale nature of the work and a deeper consideration of the musical’s tone may indeed help The Happy Prince soar.

The Happy Prince was showcased at The Place on the 3rd and 4th May, 2019.

Anthony Walker-Cook is a PhD candidate at UCL and is the Theatre editor for London Student. His interests include theatre adaptation, early modern drama, classical myths made modern and all things eighteenth century. For more information please contact: @AntWalker_Cook

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