This new musical was inspired by the classic tale of mistaken identity – The Prince and the Pauper by Mark Twain. In this version two girls, with identical appearances, swap roles. Tess is born a pauper to a cruel, dishonest father, whilst Bess is the daughter of the King of England. After changing clothes, Bess is mistakenly expelled from the palace and discovers to her horror what life is like living in poverty in Tudor London. Tess, on the other hand, is astonished to find herself living in a palace. Despite her protestations, she is unable to convince the courtiers of her real, lowly identity – they just think she has lost her mind!
The production is quite hard to explain as it included the expected elements of singing, dancing and acting, but also fight scenes and British Sign Language. This theatre company aim to produce inclusive pieces, which are suitable for hearing and deaf audiences. This concept means that all the hearing actors use sign language as an extension of their singing voices, whilst the deaf actress Rhiannon Jones (Tess) uses signing, which is voiced over so that hearing audiences don’t miss anything. This meant that all the performers had to be very talented and versatile – not least because several of them also played multiple roles.
The largely white set and curtains, along with very bright lighting at the start of the play, made it hard to imagine we were in the grimy, dark, narrow streets of London. However, this neutral background did allow the versatility required for the various scenes which were set in different locations, and the lighting created a good atmosphere later in the show, particularly in the second half.
All the actors were dressed in jeans and white shirts, so with the clever addition of a jacket, shawl or hat, they could transform quickly and easily into a different character.
The director had quite a challenge as the interpreter who was signing had to physically follow the action, but not be intrusive, which she accomplished really well. Her enthusiasm was quite infectious and added an extra element to the production. The action also moved smoothly from palace to the slum, and the use of different levels on the stage was a nice touch by the director. Technically it was a very slick production, particularly as there were numerous sound cues for the music and the voice of Tess which had to be integrated with the live singing.
The acting and singing was of a very high standard, Hannah Brownlie as the Princess (in her first professional theatre job) has a lovely voice, and the harmonies with David King Yombo were superb. He also proved himself a very versatile actor as he was convincing in the numerous roles he took on. Rhiannon, as the pauper, showed great emotion with her body and facial expressions, whilst it was a shame not to see more of Julie Wood (Mum to Tess and other roles), as her ‘Mum and Dad’ song with Beric Livingstone was one of the highlights of the show, reminding me of ‘Master of the House’ from Les Miserables. Beric (Dad to Tess and other roles) was very believable as the cruel patriarch but transformed into other characters with the deft use of a range of accents.
This is very much a feel-good show, where all the twists in the plot are resolved and everything ends happily, so ideal for family audiences in particular. The company are to be congratulated on a successful, inclusive new musical.