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A Little Princess review at Royal Festival Hall, London – ‘a stellar cast in a flawed adaptation’

The cast of A Little Princess
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Andrew Lippa and Brian Crawley’s adaptation of the beloved Frances Hodgson Burnett novel consists almost entirely of slushy ballads. The result is a mulch that not even a fine cast can salvage.

Receiving its UK premiere in a semi-staged performance directed by Arlene Phillips, A Little Princess boasts a reasonably sharp book by Crawley, pulling the plot along without much fuss: Sara Crewe, a young mixed-race girl, is sent away from her home in Africa (no country specified) to a boarding school in London where she has to defeat cruel schoolmistress Miss Minchin.

The lyrics need an overhaul though. Every couplet rhymes in the most predictable way, and the endless barrage of awful trite verses becomes exhausting.

Sara’s upbringing has been relocated from India in the book to Africa for no reason. This results in some borderline insensitive music that homogenises the continent as a land of exoticism, mysticism and bright colours.

As for Lippa’s music, every song sounds like an 11 o’ clock number. Although each number is decent enough – particularly the bouncy Live Out Loud – en masse there’s neither anything that unifies them as a score nor enough to tell them apart. Eventually they begin to halt the show’s forward motion. There are several entirely pointless songs, including one about Christmas and another about Timbuktu.

The biggest disappointment is how the excellent cast has to smile through it all. Jasmine Sakyiama in the title role is a young performer with an incredible voice. She’s matched by Jasmine Nituan, as put-upon workhouse girl Becky, who manages not to make a stereotypical cockney orphan character sound like one.

Sherlock star Amanda Abbington relishes the role of the nasty Miss Minchin, delivering her lines in a quiet drawl that slips between cruelty and comedy. Danny Mac doesn’t get much chance to shine as Sara’s father though, nor does Adam J Bernard as generic manservant Pasko, but what little he sings is great. Rebecca Trehearn finds the most flesh in her character, Miss Minchin’s younger, kinder sister Amelia. As good as they are though, it’s not enough to save this show.

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A stellar cast can’t save a deeply flawed adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic children’s novel