There is a new addition to the slew of seasonal dance shows that do so well in the run-up to Christmas. Although nothing is likely to challenge the hegemony of The Nutcracker in the western world of ballet, London has annual revivals of The Snowman (which has returned to The Peacock Theatre for its 22nd consecutive year) and Arthur Pita’s magical The Little Match Girl at the Lilian Baylis. And now, I fancy, The Place has begun a long-term tradition of its own with Luca Silvestrini’s imaginative interpretation of The Little Prince.
Silvestrini has built an impressive reputation as a choreographer with a vast vista of pioneering ideas and the knack of creating spectacle from limited resources. He has never previously tackled a pre-existing narrative and The Little Prince is a great choice to have broken this duck. It involves flying machines, a boy who falls from an asteroid, interplanetary travel and the strangest of characters. Silvestrini and his team have risen to the challenge of reproducing this timeless classic on a small stage with just a few props with outstanding – and, I hope, lasting – success. I saw a matinee with an audience chock-full of tiny tots who had brought some grown-ups along and they generally sat spell-bound for the full hour of this delightful show: their children were impeccably behaved as only utterly mesmerised infants can be.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s surreal novella has the rare credential of being both a well-loved children’s story and a timeless parable of a world in conflict, which is as relevant today as it was when the author wrote it, in 1942. The concept is autobiographical; since like the aviator in his story, Saint-Exupéry had – eight years’ previously – crashed his aeroplane in the Libyan Desert. He survived for four days with little to eat or drink and admitted to hallucinations, although he was never specific about remembering their content. It’s an intriguing possibility that they may have involved adventures with a little prince who had fallen from an asteroid. Saint-Exupéry didn’t live long enough to elaborate on his mental mirage since he disappeared inside his aeroplane in July 1944, crashing somewhere in the Mediterranean Sea, barely a year after the US publication of his masterpiece (it was banned in France until the downfall of the Vichy regime and published posthumously).
It would be difficult to imagine any performer articulating Saint-Exupéry’s title character in the way that Faith Prendergast achieves this feat. Put simply, she is the very image of The Little Prince: the youthful ebullience of her physical presence being enhanced by boyish, tousled blonde hair and Yann Seabra’s Munchkin-evoking military costume of long blue velvet coat with gold epaulets. The whole effect is enhanced by the striking height differential between Prendergast and the aviator (a welcome return to the stage of Kip Johnson on excellent form as the principal narrator of the piece). Incidentally, the task of presenting the prequel of the plane crash is accomplished through the simplest of all childish devices (the paper aeroplane).
A childlike simplicity clings to Prendergast’s palette of movement, clambering atop spherical asteroids and head-rolling happily across the stage, all performed with a comfortable, flawless grasp of her spoken text. The two principals are deliciously supported by Donna Lennard and Andrew Gardiner who – between them – portray the strange sole inhabitants of the asteroids visited on their galactic travels.
Lennard is marvellous as the vain king who rules over no subjects, delivering lines with expressiveness and humour as a head protruding from an asteroid, and then displaying further theatrical versatility as a snake, a Rose tree and the merchant who counts the stars in order to “own” them (rather than appreciate their beauty). Gardiner is also effective as the fox, the lonely geographer who knows nothing about exploration because he has never left his tiny asteroid and the lamplighter who routinely – and comically – follows orders to continually light and extinguish his lamp.
Seabra’s costume and set designs fully absorb the spirit of Saint-Exupéry’s illustrations and Frank Moon’s original music provides a fascinating and faithful score that is also absolutely in keeping with a captivating story that continues to appeal to children of every age. Silvestrini has fashioned a striking theatrical experience in perfect harmony with this timeless story, capped by a triumphal performance in the title role.