The Princess And The Pea, Tutti Frutti, York Theatre Royal Studio, 6pm this evening, then on tour. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.
SINCE Covid’s cloak turned theatres dark, York Theatre Royal’s dormant Studio could have been added to York playwright Mike Kenny’s Museum of Forgotten Things.
Thankfully, after being used for storage and rehearsals, the Studio has been re-awakened for performances anew, albeit with a capacity reduced from 100 to 71. Out goes seating to the sides; in comes a head-on stage configuration.
A masked-up CharlesHutchPress took up a front-row seat at a morning performance full of excited Badger Hill Primary School children. How lovely to be part of such an occasion full of happy, enchanted faces.
This show is a revival of Leeds children’s theatre company Tutti Frutti’s colour-suffused, playful staging of Mike Kenny’s updated adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s story, set in a place where what you see is not what it seems: the aforementioned Museum of Forgotten Things.
In his trademark way of bringing fresh perspectives to familiar stories, he refracts Andersen’s tale of The Princess And The Pea through the status of princesses today, against a backdrop that has moved on again even from the 2014 premiere, in our world of celebrity royals, social-media influencers, selfies and preening Love Island and Kardashian saturation coverage.
“Princesses seem to be back with us as a cultural phenomenon,” Kenny writes in his programme note. “The assumption is generally that a ‘real’ princess is very sensitive and high maintenance. If you read Andersen’s original, you can’t quite tell if he’s supporting or actually taking the mickey out of this attitude”.
Kenny creates a framework where three narrator-curators at the museum, a mother, son and their trainee, delve into the mystery of how a little green pea ended up there in a magical hour of storytelling, songs and silliness.
Bossy-boots Mother (Sophia Hatfield) becomes Queen; layabout Son (Mckenzie Alexander) transforms into the Prince and eager Trainee (Hannah Victoria) will emerge as the Princess of the title.
All three raid the museum drawers to play “every type of princess you could imagine” in a send-up of 21st century reality TV types (and maybe even York hen parties) as the spoilt, work-shy, silver-spoon-in-his-mouth Prince is instructed by the Queen to conduct his search for the “real Princess” he should marry.
Kenny’s play follows the Prince’s passage from birth, his privileged, demand-everything, spend-spend-spend progress to this point being denoted by numbered props, whether in a suitcase lining, on an umbrella or inside a hat that also turns into a cake-mixing bowl.
Devotees of Peter Greenaway’s cult 1988 film Drowning By Numbers will recall a similar numerical conceit reaping dividends.
Anyway, back to the storyline. Kenny notes how Andersen reveals nothing about the Princess, beyond her taking the “pea test” to prove she is a real princess, and he duly gives her a story about “what it means to be ‘real’”, rather than a Disney-glossy princess.
Rather than pretty dresses, tantrums and tiaras, Victoria’s Princess has worked in a kitchen, is blown in by the winds and is left standing in the rain until the wastrel Prince – with all staff laid off – has to answer the door himself.
Kenny, very much the people’s playwright, revels in keeping it real, not royal, with delightful mischief in his storytelling as he mirrors Andersen and the Shrek films in his irreverence towards royalty.
He has fun at the expense of Alexander’s callow Prince for being devoid of social graces and practical know-how, but tellingly he rewards him for toughening up when needs must, and likewise he sends up the Queen’s blinkered, old-school ways and haughty airs for being out of date.
Further pleasures come from Kenny raiding the cupboard of familiar fairytale characters and now forgotten things, from Goldilocks’s porridge spoon to Cinderella’s glittering glass slippers.
Harris’s cast of actor-musicians thrives on Kenny’s fast-moving sense of fun and games, constant scene and character changes and cheeky humour, allied to his storytelling prowess.
Alexander, a natural for the silly-billy daft lad in pantomime, instantly bonds with the audience with his wide-eyed playing and he loves the chance to be a princess too; Victoria makes for a grounded, streetwise Princess and Hatfield is both fun yet more serious as the older hand in the company.
They team up joyfully for Christella Litras’s compositions too, singing characterfully as well as contributing violin, accordion, saxophone and more to complement Litras’s keyboards.
So much to enjoy here, topped off by Catherine Chapman’s designs, where the stage colours of blue and green, pink and orange, yellow and gold are matched by the actors’ attire. Look out for such clever details as cupboard drawers turning into suitcases – as well as the numbers popping up on myriad objects.
At the finale, the curators change the museum name from Forgotten to Remembered Things. Your reviewer loved this show in 2014; happy to report, it is now even better than first remembered.