Prince (left), Pauper (right). Or is it the other way round … ?
The New Vic doesn’t do a panto at Christmas but instead presents a classic story, always with impressive live music and often with gymnastics, from the swashbuckling Treasure Island to the frostier The Snow Queen (aka Frozen).
They’re always entertaining and mark the start of the Christmas for many — and this year’s tale, Mark Twain’s The Prince And The Pauper, is possibly the best production we’ve seen in this slot at the New Vic.
There are several reasons for this. The chief one is that director Theresa Heskins has adapted the story to be (largely) played for laughs, and it’s almost a romp. Even when it’s not being obviously funny — see below — it’s still funny. “I’m just a poor boy, from a poor family,” says the pauper, deadpan, at one point.
There’s a lot of breaking down the fourth wall to comic effect, the actors regularly addressing the crowd, in one section ridiculing the profession and reliability of actors.
It’s got a hint of Monty Python about it, too, not just for the witch references (I don’t remember if they actually say “She’s a witch! Burn her!” but they might as well have done) but for the general humour: a humped old woman is Pythonesque, and only a plagiarism suit away from shouting that the king is only the king by “‘hanging on to outdated imperialist dogma which perpetuates the economic and social differences in our society.”
The production also makes good use of the theatre being in the round. A chase scene gives you full 4D special effects as the shouting actors run round, through and across the theatre. Dolby Atmos eat your woofers out.
The story is simple: Prince Edward and pauper Tom meet by unlikely circumstance and swap places, the prince to live in the slums and gain appreciation of his subjects, the pauper to bring some common sense to the court. The king dies during this escapade so one of the two lads is going to be king.
Deprivation and burning witches: good for the soul.
Twins Danielle and Nicole Bird play the two boys but it’s Gareth Cassidy (above) and his rubber face that steal the show. He is fundamentally funny and is given a huge advantage by playing Mary Tudor, gliding round the stage in dress on wheels, ranting about the benefits of austerity and the burning of witches. A full crowd with a couple of sherries inside it will be cheering his every appearance on stage, you can be sure.
He is genuinely funny but has the benefit of being a side character: Danielle and Nicole Bird do all the heavy lifting and are very good, just without the scope to call for witch-burnings or circle the stage on castors. They’re often making a serious point: clothes not only maketh the man but, in this story, the man is his clothes; all it takes to look poor/regal is to don the wrong/right clothes. At the end, the prince and the pauper are identical, only their shoes telling the twins apart.
Kieran’s teapot impression always went down well.
If Cassidy wasn’t so funny, Kieran Buckeridge (above) would probably steal the show for himself, his lanky man-in-charge of everything also being ideal for amusing moments, though it’s all pretty funny, right down to the two Beefeaters’ lamentably brief riff-raff song.
There’s always a bit two thirds through a New Vic Christmas show when it pauses the story, whether for dramatic effect or to pad things out we’re never sure.
“Gareth’s got wheels but I can’t even use my legs!”
The Prince And The Pauper is being told by a troupe of strolling players, which gives scope for various diversions, not least the dramatic interlude being entertaining, a show laid on for the crowds with maypole dancing and acrobatics.
The New Vic Christmas show always has actors who can play instruments, so each show has its own live band. This time round they seem to have recruited musicians who can also act, as the standard of musicianship is higher, under Faz Shah, musical director and performer on stage; over-achiever of the day is Margit van der Zwan, not only an actor and cellist — she’s worked with the likes of Elbow and Richard Hawley, as well as Manchester’s Dutch Uncles, I Am Kloot and Mat Halsall’s Gondwana Orchestra — but also an artist.
All in all: hugely enjoyable and well worth seeing at least once.
The Prince And The Pauper plays at the New Vic theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme until Saturday, 25th January.
Tickets: £17-£26.50. Interpreted performances: captioned, 2.15pm on 18th January, audio described, 2.15pm 11th January. Accessible performances for schools: audio described, 8th, 10.30am, captioned, 14th January, 2.15pm. Accessible performances for families: audio described, 11th January, 2.15pm, captioned, 18th, 2.15pm.
Relaxed performance, 13th January, 6pm.
(Photos: Andrew Billington).
Ms Bird regrets agreeing to be paid in food.
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