There have been many adaptations of Mark Twain's parable following the adventures of the eponymous young heroes, Prince Edward Tudor of England and Tom Canty, the beggar on the streets of the future king's capital. The conceit is that the pair are lookalikes who cannot be told apart, so they swap identities and find out how the other half lives. The prince gets a reality check revealing the misery and injustice suffered by his poorest subjects and the pauper has to learn fast how to fool his courtly attendants.
Feathered caps off to The Watermill for this inspired and imaginative choice of seasonal show, a real attraction for families and school parties alike. Although in past stage and screen incarnations, girls have got to play Tom, a nice twist in Chinonyerem Odimba's adaptation is that the prince's lookalike pauper actually is written as a girl. Odimba also sets the story in a London that is not entirely Tudor, providing mystical guides and shape-shifting storytellers who admit to being at least 300 years old and morph into the roles of the pauper's older siblings to tell their tale.
As the Canty twins, Bette and Nan – a deliciously cheeky and authoritative Stacey Ghent and Loren O'Dair – whisk their eager young audience back to the year 1547. They are two of a six-strong cast of actor-musicians so versatile that they easily populate designer Katie Lias' streets of an "olden-time" London town. Their storytelling is totally compelling from the get-go under Abigail Pickard Price's tight, sparky direction.
Although 1547 is the year when the boy king Edward VI came to the throne aged only nine, there is no note to positively identify his father as Henry VIII – however, Hayden Wood's paternal King does sport a version of the much-married monarch's iconic costume. Nonetheless, the production makes for more than just a period adventure story, a tale that works across time to take in a glimpse of the poverty on the streets of London. This is particularly brought home by a visit to a workhouse straight out of Dickens, complete with work song "Hammer It Down!" and accentuated by the beats of the inmates' hammers.
Wood doubles as Father Canty, a dad who keeps his brood of beggars in order with such Dickensian discipline that the audience join in with a full-throated "They went that way" to put him off the scent as he chases the disguised prince round the theatre. Odimba also skilfully skirts the question of the King's six wives, including only the scheming figure of Anne-Marie Piazza's full-blooded Lady Whatsit as a self-proclaimed "almost queen", bent on becoming the power behind the throne of the young prince whose coronation she thinks she is orchestrating.
David Fallon's Prince may be born and bred to rule, but he is eager to have his eyes opened to the way his poorest subjects live; and this actor-musician graduate from Rose Bruford is an impressive keyboard player too. Tarek Merchant's versatile, tuneful score includes at least one immediate earworm – Tomasina's wistful folk ballad "Last Night I Lay A-Dreaming" has the authentic feel of a folk ballad, especially when sung by sweet-voiced Tendai Rinomhota's wonderfully appealing and resourceful Pauper. Mention should be also made of the canine companions – Ghent makes a dogged helpmate as Miles Hendon, but the award of man's very best friend here goes to puppet designer Nicholas Willsher's shaggy beast.
Despite its timeless feel, our storytellers stick to Twain's ending. This production is history brought to life with equal parts insightfulness, theatricality and fun – a truly original, seasonal treat.