Few things age less predictably than children’s literature. Bound up as they are in adult conceptions of both what kids want and what they should aspire to be, a popular classic of one era can easily seem twee and patronising to the next. Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess (a slightly less popular work than her perennial The Secret Garden), suffers somewhat from this phenomenon, as does this otherwise very good adaptation by young—but already well-established—York theatre group, Belt Up.
Offering an immersive, site-specific experience, the group recreate a turn-of-the-century drawing room, where the audience sit in the round on sofas and cushions, the walls decked with ball masks, books and instruments. This is a school for girls, run by the fierce and small-minded Miss Miller, played with appropriate menace by the strikingly bearded Dominic Allen. Seven-year-old dreamer Sara Crewe (Serena Manthegi) is brought from an idyllic life in India into this stifling environment by her military father (Jethro Compton), who then disappears on a long tour of duty.
Aiming at invention and wit rather than realism, Belt Up use their audience as extra cast members, from the other girls at the school to the grand Viceroys and Vikrams in Sara’s substantial story-within-a-story that she tells to her peers, which both mirrors her own experience and offers her a form of escape. It’s a sweet fable for the power of story-telling, efficiently and interestingly told. But Manthegi is unable to bring much nuance to Sara, who is something of a cloying goody-two-shoes to modern eyes, and your emotional reaction to the whole confection will depend largely on how much sentimentality and idealised childhood innocence you can take.