Funny, charming fringe musical about a woman who fooled Regency England
This welcome new musical springs on to the small stage of the Finborough Theatre in Earls Court in a fully-formed, sprightly and thoroughly enjoyable fashion.
It’s based on the intriguing real-life story of a homeless woman who pretended not to speak English and successfully fooled much of 1820s British society into believing she was foreign royalty.
From these starting points, writer, director and co-composer Phil Willmott has crafted a fresh, engaging tale of a young woman determinedly taking control of her own life at a time when the workhouse was the best alternative.
This is a snappy, well-paced production, which takes fun pot-shots at the British fetishisation of all things exotic that really took root in the nineteenth century. Willmott pricks the pomposity of a chorus of preening toffs with an entertainingly Blackadder-esque glee.
Nikita Johal makes Princess Caraboo beguiling but also tough. Her romance with painter Eddie (an almost huggably endearing Christian James) is refreshingly founded not just on their respective marginalisation but their mutual complicity in her lie.
That Princess Caraboo’s story is presented as being acted for us by the staff of the bereaved couple who took her in – Sir Charles and Lady Elizabeth Worrall (Phil Sealey and Sarah Lawn in full Jane Austen mode) – is a nice wrinkle, even if the embedded irony of this is only touched upon.
But the show’s drawing-room setting, complete with a miniature ship and a dolls house as props, is mainly a creative way of making a virtue of the intimate Finborough stage – giving the production a fun, homespun feel accompanied by some sharp choreography in the big numbers.
Jack Weir’s atmospheric lighting and James Nicholson’s sound design make a little go a long way, propelling the story forward, while musical director Freddie Tapner pitches the score to fit the space, rather than overwhelm it.
Of course, a new musical lives or dies by its score. And the good news here is that the lyrics are catchy and the melodies memorable. ‘I am My Own Person’ is a particular standout – and could sum up this delight of a show as a whole