Relaxation and tranquillity are not words one normally associates with family Christmas shows, but they certainly apply to a sweet, but never sickly-sweet, production of The Little Prince at Hampstead Theatre until January 10. If the idea of an auditorium full of infants baying for handouts and sing-songs at a traditional panto is your idea of the ninth circle of hell, then this might well be the show for you and any little ones in tow. My own children were intrigued, amused and, at the end, rendered disarmingly mellow.
Many of us will remember Antoine de Saint Exupéry’s book principally from the illustrations, and designer Jessica Curtis has cleverly echoed them in both set and costume design, which have a cartoon-like quality. The downed plane of the Pilot, who finds the Little Prince wandering in the desert and hears his stories of other planets, is half-submerged in the sand, its engine smoking but the propellor still turning.
Director and adapter Anthony Clark has set the pace carefully: it starts slowly, with The Pilot ruminating on the strange ways adults see the world, and speeds up considerably after the interval, when the Little Prince meets characters on other planets such as The Businessman, The Drunkard and The Geographer, who are all emblematic of the foibles and failures of the world of grown-ups. But it is the music which really sets the tone, just as it does in a silent movie: Mark Vibrans’ accompaniment (on two grand pianos) is appropriately Gallic and surreal in its Debussyesque cadences, lulling the audience into this escapist world.
The Little Prince is played by a woman, Jade Williams, who captures well his naivete but also his strength of character. Julie Alanah-Brighten excels in a variety of interplanetary roles, but is most effective as The Rose, a demanding little thing adopted by the Little Prince in a spirit of romance. This cute but rather spoilt plant was apparently modelled by Saint Exupery
on the character of his wife. (I’m saying nothing.)
As with the book, there is much in this production of The Little Prince that will appeal to adults as well as children. Saint Exupery based the story partly on his experience of crash-landing in the desert and nearly dying of dehydration after four days’ wandering (he was finally found by a bedouin). It caused him to ruminate on the meaning of his life and those of others, and his story encourages readers to do the same. ‘It is only with the heart that it is possible to see,’ runs the refrain.
The Little Prince is on at the Hampstead Theatre until January 10.