Review: Twelve Dancing Princesses, National Student Drama Festival

Twelve sisters fly away in the night to dance themselves silly. Their father, perplexed at their disappearances each night seeks help from a prince, who, in return for uncovering the truth, wishes to take the sisters and marry them to his elven brothers. The sisters’ fates are sealed and upon their return they’re separated to marry the brothers. This isn’t the end of the tale though, only the beginning, as each sister plots revenge against her husband. Rat poison snuffs one, whilst another is devoured hungrily, one by one they fall victim to the sister’s plotting. Strongbox Theatre’s The Twelve Dancing Princesses is a slickly directed piece to open the National Student Drama Festival (at least for those on the red route). It isn’t perfect, but it does offer sixty minutes of polished performances.

There are however niggling questions which I can’t shake having seen Cassey Elizabeth North and Joshua Patel’s production. The split stage with the ‘broken heart band’ who accompany the piece, whilst having a nice reveal at the end, seems distant from the main acting space used by the ensemble. The soft rhyming words of North’s narration evoke a sassy quality, but this doesn’t translate to the playful and physical presence of the rest of the piece. Then there’s a question of comedy. The Twelve Dancing Princesses tries at times to offer laughs where they fall upon silence: it’s directing with purpose, but perhaps misjudged. Lastly, the story, and thus at times the piece, feels repetitive. The sisters are out to revenge their husbands, and this we understand within the first fifteen minutes. We then see each sister’s revenge. One by one, by one, by one… By the fourth sister it’s formulaic. Thankfully North and Patel are at least conscious of this and do try to differentiate each narrative, but there’s no denying the repetitive nature of the piece.

Putting these niggling questions to one side, and there is an abundance of fine acting at work; playful and energised. The ensemble of six female performers are equal to the demands of a story that has a character-count far in excess of their numbers, including many male characters. This is the strongest aspect to the production, a dedicated ensemble who give everything in their physical portrayals. At times it feels a little girly, but this is juxtaposed with the piece’s feminist slant. The direction of the ensemble is slick, as they slide through scenes and characters with speed and precision, never falling prey to the energy-drops so often seen in student work. Perhaps then it could be said that the work might feel too slick. The ensemble never dull. They’re fiery performers hell-bent on delivering their performances.

So The Twelve Dancing Princesses is… well, what is it? A snappy, devised piece inspired by Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing The Cherry, with energised performers and a dollop of feminist power to match. It doesn’t delve deep into the themes, instead skidding across them repeatedly, but it does prove to be entertaining, and that, at least, is something worth writing about. I only wish it did more, slickness or not, theatre needs a purpose and a story to drive it. The Twelve Dancing Princesses is missing a purpose.

Originally published in Noises Off.