“The smallest act of kindness is worth more than the grandest intention.” Prior to the showcase performance of a new musical adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince, the show’s composer Hal Cazalet ended his introduction with this quote from Wilde himself. And it’s so true. The tiniest nice gesture often comes from an instinctive place, so its honesty and genuineness can really touch you; if you’re having an awful day, it only takes a little thing to tip the scales in either direction – whether you’re the one committing it or are on the receiving end.
Compassion and kindness are at the heart of Wilde’s story, as a prince who led a selfish & hedonistic life is left in a purgatory of his own making: forced to watch over his suffering town as a statue with no means to help them, even once he does see the error of his ways. Some hope comes in the form of a swallow, beginning her first winter migration to Egypt – she agrees to act as the prince’s messenger, delivering lifelines to the poor and needy, all the while delaying her flight and endangering her own life.
The musical adaptation has framed this dark fairytale with a plot set in a 1920s laundry; an employee’s act of kindness towards an injured swallow quickly leads into the main story, and finds a way for some hope to spring from her compassionate gestures. It’s also a good way of getting an audience of all ages to connect with the story early on, as well as showing that there can be goodness in people (not just non-human figures like a statue and a swallow) – especially after seeing the Mayor’s swindling and scheming bringing the town to its knees for his own benefit.
What makes the show so enchanting for me is its focus on dance and movement to help tell the story. I adored An American in Paris for this very reason (well, the Gershwin score obviously helped a little too), and I often find myself wistfully hoping that more shows will take a risk and go down that route with a new show; there’s so much that dance can do if you give it a chance. It’s perfect for portraying all of the swallows, as they glide gracefully around the stage, as well as the toil of the town’s workers (and those back at the laundry) – plus it’s a great way for the prince to express himself, being mostly still throughout the show. Towards the end of the show we are treated to two wonderful extended dance sequences: a dream ballet showing the swallow’s conflicted feelings, as she starts to realise that Egypt is slipping from her grasp, and latterly her final dance with the prince, as they succumb to their fates together. This last one is incredibly moving, made all the more so by exceptional performances from Sophia Hurdley and Sam Archer, who also choreographed the dance in this production.
Music and movement are currently the main modes of storytelling, with an evocative score from Hal Cazalet; as well as solo numbers, the ensemble is often called upon for various parts and harmonies, creating rich layers of sound – the 13-strong company and the small band filling the studio with ease.
This showcase production was put together in around 18 days, with some quite brilliant results. As well as Archer & Hurdley, Phil Daniels & Janie Dee put in a pair of very memorable performances as Mr Mere/The Mayor & Mrs Bentley. It’s a great foundation from which to start; given more time it feels like it could grow a bit (its current running time is two hours, including an interval, so there’s room for manoeuvre – maybe extending Michael Barry’s book a little), and there is potential for it to be really interestingly staged. I look forward to seeing what the future has in store for The Happy Prince.
For further information and enquiries about The Happy Prince musical, please contact Wilde Theatre Productions LTD (WTP) at: Hal@thehappyprincemusical.com (07788105996)