THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER
New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Saturday 23rd November, 2019
The New Vic’s Christmas show is always a special treat but this year they have outdone themselves with this stylish and inventive staging of the Mark Twain classic tale. This adaptation by director Theresa Heskins puts us at the heart of a Tudor theatre, with the New Vic’s auditorium decked out to look a bit like The Globe. A troupe of players comes on, singing the prologue to Henry V – so the artifice and theatricality of the piece are to the forefront of the storytelling. Later, when the players appear as characters themselves, there’s another layer. There’s a lot to unpick here between the story and the telling.
As Tom Canty, the titular pauper, Nichole Bird is as chirpy a Cockney as you could ever hope to meet, wide-eyed with wonder; the deprivation and hardships of his upbringing have not hardened his heart. Danielle Bird’s lookalike prince Edward is suitably toffish, with more than a hint of our own Prince Charles to her intonations. Again, we see that despite his rarefied and privileged upbringing, the boy has a good heart and can exercise compassion. When they swap clothes so each can sample life on the other side of the palace gates, they find that it’s not all cakes and ale, or street entertainment. Both Birds are excellent – you couldn’t pick between them – providing the energy at the heart of the story.
Tom Richardson is a kindly, ebullient Henry VIII, and Jasmin Hinds gives us a fun young Princess Elizabeth, but my favourite of the royals presented here has to be Gareth Cassidy’s pious and pompous Mary Tudor, gliding around in the dress he jumps in and out of, forecasting direness and doom. Cassidy is comedy gold whatever he does. He pairs up with Richardson as a couple of Beefeaters, who are equally funny apart as they are together.
Kieran Buckeridge possesses, I hope he won’t mind me saying, the most Tudor face of the company, as he charms with a range of roles including the Player Manager and the Chamberlain. Matthew Ganley’s Fool transforms into the aggressive, abusive Pa Canty, while Sufia Manya’s Ma Canty adds emotional depth.
Everyone in the company performs with such detail, I’m sure you can’t possibly see everything they do with all the running around in this action-packed show. The point is, wherever you’re seated, whichever way you’re looking, there’s something delightful going on. The cast also bring on instruments to play, and these are integrated into the action, even the fights!
And such music! Genius composer James Atherton pulls yet another marvellous score from his bag, with string instruments, reeds, drums and a trumpet providing the period flavour. It’s never twee and there is often a melancholic undertone. It’s sublime – culminating in a stirring rendition of Pastime With Good Company, Henry VIII’s biggest hit. The show also features a surreal version of Greensleeves, with sentient topiary creating a moving maze.
It’s a lavish production – lavish in ideas and atmosphere. Lis Evans’s costumes are gorgeous, creating most of the historical feel. Laura Willstead’s set design of parquetry and Tudor roses unifies stage and audience with its wraparound frieze of tiny Tudor London.
Theresa Heskins’s script is faithful to the Twain but with the added fun of being peppered with Shakespearean references, some of them more obvious than others. There are also nods to other poets – and the dialogue, mannered to sound Tudor-ish, never sounds false or forced.
As expected, we get plenty of distance combat, giving the violence a cartoon feel. There’s the letter-chucking that works so well – you know when you’re watching a Heskins show! But there are plenty of surprises too. Heskins is a director who knows what works and when to use it. As a result, you are thoroughly spellbound throughout by this funny, engaging, thought-provoking, educational and heart-warming story.
Definitely not a horrible history, this show is fit for a prince – or a pauper like me.