Chris Eldon Lee reviews ‘The Prince and The Pauper’, which is at the New Vic Theatre in Newcastle-Under-Lyme until Saturday 25th January.
I hereby excuse you from thinking you are seeing double at the New Vic this Christmas. No, you’ve not been at the Port … the actors playing the Prince and the Pauper are indeed identical twins. Danielle Bird plays the princely Edward and her sister Nichole plays poor Tom – in Mark Twain’s rumbustious tale that’s on the verge of being a political manifesto for The Children’s Party.
“None shall beat a child”, declares the young King. “And even girls shall be allowed to go to school”. It is wonderful to watch 600 children gasp, ‘ohh!’ and ‘ahh!’ as Theresa Heskins’ exciting new show unfurls with mirth, music, dancing topiary trees, chaotic chases and Royal (indoor) Fireworks.
The two boys are born on the same day. Edward is the son King Henry 8th has always wanted. Tom is just another mouth his beggar-father doesn’t want to have to feed. One is taught to give orders, the other learns to ignore them.
For a present-day society in which the gulf between the ‘Haves’ and the ‘Have-nots’ is ever widening, it’s a timely tale that will be lost on no-one. The morality is clear for every young mind to absorb, as the boys meet at the Palace gates, swap places for a laugh, and then get trapped in each other’s social class. But, don’t worry, fun and frolics tumble out around the storyline, making this the most cosily enjoyable Christmas Show.
A troop of Troubadours stumbles onto the circular stage, cursing themselves for having left their beards behind in Stafford. The twin apprentice actors take the lead roles. The Player King takes on Henry the 8th (contemplating a German wife this time!) and the Player Queen becomes the puritanical Mary Tudor. Designer Lis Evans has picked up on the historical quirk that courtly costumes were often so rigidly heavy, they would stand up on their own. This allows actor Gareth Cassidy to clamber in and out of it to deliver Mary’s moral mottoes. And when he moves, it’s clearly on casters, which gives him a most sinister grace. For me, Gareth is the surprise star of the show – especially when he teams up with Tom Richardson to play the Palace’s dim-witted Beefeaters; like two traditional Pantomime Brokers Men.
The twins are terrific. Nicole Bird is cockney as hell as she wallows in her new-found fortune; but plays the pathos perfectly, when faced with having to sentence her own father for thieving (to a searing solo violin soundtrack) and -in a neat biblical touch – choosing to deny her own mother.
Danielle’s takes her haughty accent into the London slums and we watch the scales drop from her eyes as she sees how the poor barely survive. “I’ve never cried before”, she says. And so, the seeds of future reform are visibly sown.
The very magic of theatre seeps through this free-flowing show; royally embellish with puppetry and pageantry, comedy and colour, exuberant acrobatics (from the youth team, no less!) and crystal-clear storytelling.
It’s all laced with James Atherton’s authentic take on the music of the time, performed live on stage by an ensemble including a twirling violinist and dancing celloist – and sometimes drawn from King Henry’s own compositions.
There is one particular moment, though, that had me baffled. Maybe you can work it out?
Once Tom and Edward have swapped places, the Prince – playing the Pauper – goes to bed, centre stage, in Tom’s hovel. But when dawn comes, we see the Pauper – playing the Prince – clamber out of the same bed, but in the Palace. Do, the actors magically change places in a trice, or do they just swap accents and play the rest of the show as each other? Or is Theresa Heskins simply playing with us?
What is abundantly clear, however, is the wealth of life-long lessons of truth, honesty and moral fortitude the play embraces – for Commoner and Royalty alike. I recommend absolutely everyone to see it. Including Prince Andrew.