Princess Caraboo, Finborough Theatre ★★★★★

Reviewed for Musical Theatre Review

Two hundred years ago, a woman who appeared to speak no English appeared in Devonshire. Initially believed to be a vagrant, a Portuguese sailor helped convince the locals that she was Caraboo, a princess from an Eastern land. For an England with a new-found fascination for all things exotic, Princess Caraboo was a new object of enrapture: all the more so when it was discovered she was actually Mary Willcocks, a Devon local.

Rather than choosing a literal adaptation of this story for his new musical, Phil Willmott has elected to acknowledge the fraud at the heart of Princess Caraboo from the outset. The musical is presented as a confection dreamed up by Sir Charles Worrall (Phil Sealey), who along with his wife had housed the supposed princess.

Lecturing the audience about the philosophy of lying, Sir Charles convinces his wife and servants to present the story as a collection of tableaux. In truth, this adds up to the usual rounds of role doubling that one expects from a Fringe musical, but the play-within-a-play business is kept to enough of a minimum that it provides its own amusement without ever overstaying its welcome.

Besides, the reaffirmation that we are watching a fabrication, a fiction about a real-life fiction, plays into the numerous ways in which lies are presented: as well as Caraboo’s deception, we have an artist whose family fortune disappeared at the hands of his late father, a gambler and embezzler; Sir Charles’s wife, who lets herself believe that mothering Caraboo will help fill the hole left by the death of her daughter; a lord who, while attempting to woo the princess, demonstrates that money and nobility are two very different things.

As Caraboo, Nikita Johal brings a mischievous impishness that is just right for the role. But despite being the title character, her role is overshadowed by the men competing for her hand. Oliver Stanley’s Lord Marlborough is a sleazily boorish toff, the perfect villainous foil to Christian James’ Eddie, the impoverished artist who falls for Caraboo even as she pursues the money that he will never have.

The love triangle at the heart of this comedy is supported by an able cast. Sealey’s Sir Charles is backed up by Sarah Lawn as his charitable wife to form a believable, grieving couple who become open to Caraboo’s deception.

Of the rest of the ensemble, Ruben Kuppens’ turn as a supposed linguistics expert who attempts to translate Caraboo’s nonsense jabberings as if they were an actual foreign language is one example of the many light touches throughout Wilmott’s script.

The music (by Willmott and Mark Collins, with lyrics also by Willmott) is suitably light and breezy, with ensemble numbers ‘Just Say Yes’ and ‘Truth’ standing out. The latter, which opens Act II with a breezy faux-Fosse interpretation of Regency dance, is the best of Thomas Michael Voss’ choreography, which pushes the Finborough’s space to its limits.

In his introduction to the programme and play script of Princess Caraboo, Willmott catalogues the long process, and false starts, that a larger version of the musical faced before this chamber interpretation in one of London’s smallest theatre spaces.

One hopes that this beautiful, charming, funny musical gets the chance to work on a bigger stage, and to larger audiences, for musicals this good do not come along often enough.

Princess Caraboo continues at the Finborough Theatre until April 22.


Musical Theatre Review