Questions raised by Little Prince

The Journal

The Journal

The Little Prince at Northern Stage until January 13

Without a shadow of a doubt, this is one of the most beautiful shows ever staged at this theatre (Newcastle Playhouse as was).

I had hoped this would be the case. Anyone who has seen director Neil Murray's work will know he packs a visual punch and here he was marking his debut in the rebuilt theatre.

We enter to see a blue landscape beneath a giant, swirling globe which turns out to be a projection on to a circular screen. It's impossible not to be impressed.

Likewise in the opening sequence when the character known as The Aviator, played by the German actor Markus Von Lingen, crash-lands his plane in the desert. It is a genuinely exciting moment.

Here, in due course, our grounded friend will encounter The Little Prince, a funny little man who inhabits a tiny asteroid - made funnier by the fact that he is played by a very talented young woman, Sophie Trott.

This is just about the only territory shared by The Little Prince and the pantos springing up all over.

In fact, I can honestly say that The Little Prince is not only the most beautiful family show I have seen - it is probably also the strangest.

Certain scenes are still playing out in my mind as, retrospectively, I strive to sort out their significance in the great scheme of things.

Erica Whyman, new boss of the theatre now known as Northern Stage, has made plain her enthusiasm for continental theatre and that's exciting, putting Tyneside at the cutting edge. But it also maybe means we will have to get used to expecting the unexpected.

The Little Prince is a very famous story (on the Continent, anyway) by the French author and pilot Antoine de Saint-Exupéry whose full and proper name was Count Antoine Jean-Baptiste Marie Roger de Saint-Exupéry.

It was published in 1943, the year before de Saint-Exupéry vanished, aged 44, on a wartime mission to collect data on German troop movements. Mystery surrounded his disappearance although the wreckage of his plane was found off the coast of Marseilles in 2000. In France, the story is held in the greatest esteem because it is deemed to work on different levels - as an engaging fairytale and as a philosophical comment on the ills of mankind. The Little Prince has a thing about flowers, particularly a blooming great one played by Jane Arnfield in one of the show's most gorgeous costumes.

For all its beauty and inherent truth, The Little Prince is a very old fashioned tale and sometimes, in this adaptation by John Scoullar and Rick Cummins, the language is less than engaging.

"One runs the risk of weeping if one allows oneself to be tamed," remarks The Aviator at one point, for which tongue-twister our engaging, if heavily accented, hero should be awarded the theatrical equivalent of the Distinguished Flying Cross. Game injections of Geordie humour come courtesy of Northern Stage stalwarts Tony Neilson (Lamplighter) and Peter Peverley (Fox) but the over-riding impression is that this show, like The Little Prince, is from another place - a place far, far away.

That's not necessarily a bad thing. For grown-ups used to easy Christmas sentiments and raucous audience participation, and kids sated on multi-channel TV and showerings of e-numbers, it's bracing to be asked to think.

But after an exciting opening and for all its visual plus-points and its sheer ambition, The Little Prince becomes grounded in the sand of its own whimsy. I left the theatre with a large, unseen question mark over my head and it's still there.

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