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Review: The Hunting Lodge (Unicorn Theatre)

Ignace Cornelissen's sort of Cinderella sequel follows a Prince Charming as he's on the lookout for a new wife

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

'Til death do us part is not the same as happy ever after. Belgian playwright Ignace Cornelissen's take-down of fairy tale romance goes after the notion that princesses should long to marry their prince – and, in fairness, vice versa.

A sort-of sequel to Cinderella, The Hunting Lodge finds that story's Prince (charming, but chinless) on the lookout for a new wife. Only he's still burning a candle for his first. 20 candles to be precise, all flickering away with flowers and framed photographs in a shrine to a woman who vanished out of the blue. (Tucked away, just visible, there's the face of another long-gone princess, only this one's recognisably real.) After five years of hermitage, he's throwing a ball.

There's a playbook for these things, of course. The prince dances with each guest, picks himself a partner and then pops the question. The girls all know the game, so they doll themselves up in gowns and tiaras, curl their hair, curtsy and laugh at his jokes. Go with what works. Desperate Daisy (Fiona Sheehan) plays the perfect princess and only her cleaner Charlotte (Rhiann Francis) chooses not to. Everyone else sticks to a tried and tested technique. Come midnight, the prince finds his ballroom abandoned, empty but for a floor full of shoes.

Cornelissen has a knack for realigning the stories that get into our subconscious. He adapted the Unicorn's fantastic Henry the Fifth, and yet again there's no faulting his politics here. Simone Romaniuk's design entangles the trio in a forest of chains, and Purni Morell's production overturns our images of both royalty and romance, and tackles the ludicrous trope of love rivals battling it out.

This is a show that looks behind the façade. Alone, each character drops the performance that polite society demands. As Philip Arditti's prince puts on his royal finery, you see the man beneath the monarch; a nervy chap who tends to his bald spot and practises his laugh. Eligibilty, it seems, doesn't prevent insecurity. Daisy, meanwhile, hugs the furniture and cuddles the curtains, more in love with the life of royalty than the royal prince himself. Charlotte, for her part, sticks her finger into a dusty corner; proof that you can lead a cleaner to courtiers, but she'll still sort a stink.

Nonetheless, the show stutters as it goes on. It doesn't always make the most of its moments, so a carefree dance comes out a bit cringeworthy and cautious, and unexpected darker turns tumble out in a rush. Ideas get tangled in the process and, as the two wouldbe wags come to blows – Daisy tracking Charlotte down with an armoury worthy of Tarantino – Morell's caught between scolding unsisterliness and celebrating badassery.

Cornelissen leaves us with a final twist – a fairytale transformation that's a sting in the tale. Princes that marry cleaners might not want wives, but maids. Here's the question: who's hunting who?

The Hunting Lodge runs at the Unicorn Theatre until 5 March.