New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme, until Saturday 25 January
After ten years of adapting well-known stories for the New Vic’s festive-season shows, Theresa Heskins has turned to a rarely-read children’s story by Mark Twain: The Prince and the Pauper.
If the plot is less familiar than in previous years, Heskins brings to it her accumulated experience in producing first-rate dramas for children and gives us an engrossing fable within an enchanting entertainment.
Tom Canty is a child of the London slums, sent out each day hungry and ragged to beg for his abusive father. Edward Tudor is the confined and pampered heir to the English throne. As Tom stands outside the gates of Westminster Palace the guards order the “riff-raff to rough off”. Edward sees them knock Tom about and tells them to let the lad inside.
A rapid rapport is established: “Do you know any games?” asks Edward. “Do you have any food?” answers Tom. They notice a remarkable resemblance, confirmed when they playfully swap clothes, naively thinking they can change back before anyone knows. Edward gleefully leaves the palace to savour a taste of real life.
Meanwhile Tom eagerly tucks into a seventeen-course supper, but is soon challenged by the attentions of 384 servants and having to tell his sister Elizabeth a joke in Latin (“Julius Caesar walked into a tavern…”). Edward is shocked to discover his imperious commands earn only laughter and scorn, and finds himself bedding down in Offal Court, off Pudding Lane, with an empty stomach.
The adventures that follow show both boys learning important lessons in life, not least a quality of compassion for others less fortunate. The degree of attention among the three large school parties in the audience when I saw the show suggested clearly that these lessons were not lost. And although the book was written in 1881 and the story set in 1547, adults can surely find contemporary parallels with the numbers of rough sleepers on our streets today, cheek by jowl with hugely privileged wealth.
But the show is neither preachy nor glum. The tale is told by a troupe of travelling players providing music, song, and dance, which give pace and colour throughout and peak in glorious spectacles. There are fights and chases aplenty. And there are lovely touches of confident stagecraft with which the director and the New Vic’s creative team elicit quiet gasps of awe in their young audience and put a deep smile on my face.
Identical twins Danielle and Nichole Bird enjoy themselves enormously as Prince and Pauper respectively. They bring a necessary verisimilitude to the conceit of the swapped identities and make the whole thing work convincingly. Gareth Cassidy glides around on hidden castors squeezing much humour from the dourest character on stage — Princess Mary. And David Ahmad makes a dashing entrance after the interval as Miles Hendon: “Here I am at last – your hero!”
The Young Company, recruited from local young people in school years 7 to 9, made an impressive addition to the troupe of travelling players. Their acrobatics were excellent and the voices in their haunting version of Oranges and Lemons were stunning.