By Simon Fearn
Set apart as the only musical at the drama festival, The Princes Quest was tonally uneven and often unoriginal, yet remained solidly entertaining throughout.
The set-up of a feminist rewrite of the classical fairy-tale narrative is relatively uninspiring, and the idea to have the action unfold at a fancy dress party was a little contrived. With only five people present at the gathering, and director Olivia Race’s blocking generally awkward, you never got the sense of the energy or disorder of your typical house party.
The performances almost compensated for these shortcomings. Joe McWilliam was winningly awkward as Ernest, portraying real emotion by the end of the play, along with a seriously good vocal range. Lydia Feerick was mostly excellent as the shy Princess, yet she was nowhere near as expressive as the others during her musical numbers. Both Michael Yates and Ellie Jones lacked nuance in supporting roles, whilst Bianca Watts effectively stole the show through her singular and detailed portrayal of an eccentric and inquisitive child.
As far as the music went, the songs were catchy, yet instantly forgettable, with some enjoyable harmonies. You could easily imagine these ditties on a low budget version of Frozen. It was comforting that Henry Winlow didn’t take himself too seriously when writing some self-consciously naff lyrics, at one point describing a questing prince in raptures over a shoe in order to find a rhyme.
The script was also a mixed bag. Sophie McQuillan wrote very well for Watts’ child and Feerick’s princess, yet the older incarnation of Ernest had the slightly odd habit of referring to his young companion as “kiddo”. The feminist jokes were all on point (“screw the patriarchy you fool!”), and some seriously good gags had the audience in stitches.
This was a play that essentially ended twice. We were first presented with our longed for happy ending—which could be said to be a satisfying plot twist, but any astute audience member could have seen it coming from a mile off. One triumphant duet later and we’re back to the framing narrative, one half of the central couple having passed away. What follows is shocking in its genuine emotion after the preceding farce, employing humble and prosaic imagery to convey Ernest’s heartache. In terms of tone it’s horribly jarring, but I’m tempted to say that it worked.
So not a bad effort from Winlow and McQuillan. Their idea may not be particularly original or their music particularly memorable, but that didn’t stop them from providing a joyous hour’s theatre, at least part of which was taken up with hysterical laughter.
Photograph: Samuel Kirkman.
The Durham Drama Festival will run until Fri 12th Feb at The Assembly Rooms Theatre. Tickets will be available on the door.