As the most translated French-language novel of all time, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince is a story with nostalgic significance for many. This makes it a strong choice for a new French Play in the tradition of Oxford’s Italian, German and Greek offerings, but comes with its own set of challenges – not least the difficulty of staging a tale in which the title character travels from planet to planet with the help of a flock of birds. Despite my initial reservations, however, the team behind the adaptation at the Simpkins Lee Theatre have decidedly risen to the occasion.
The story is told by a man who, having been discouraged from more creative pursuits at a young age, instead became a pilot – a decision that leads to his crash in the Sahara Desert and an unlikely encounter. Thousands of miles from civilisation, a young boy approaches the wreckage and requests, without preamble, that he draw him a sheep. As the narrator says, “When a mystery is too powerful, one dares not disobey.” So begins an unlikely friendship: while the Aviator struggles to repair his plane, the Little Prince tells the story of his life on Asteroid B-612 and the journey through the stars that brought him to Earth.
The cast take turns in the roles of the Aviator and the Little Prince; when not playing one of the two leads, they also double as disapproving grown-ups or vain wild roses as the plot requires it, but they are perhaps most impressive when bringing the colourful inhabitants of the prince’s universe to life. Though each of these characters – including a King with no subjects, a Drunkard who drinks to forget the shame of drinking, and a Lamplighter doomed to perform his duties twice every minute due to the rapid rotation of his tiny planet – only appears in a single scene, the exaggerated physicality of the performers makes them both amusing and memorable.
Having several people play the Aviator sometimes feels clumsy, with actors speaking over each other instead of in unison and switching off seemingly arbitrarily. The calibre of the acting itself, however, is generally high: Serin Gioan is especially compelling in their early turn as the Aviator, illustrating the character’s distaste for his fellow grandes personnes convincingly and entertainingly. As with the comedic planet-hopping interlude, the more emotional subplots are strong. Particularly noteworthy is Alexander Bridges as the Fox opposite Georgia Crump’s Little Prince – the two have excellent chemistry, with an endearing first encounter and sad farewell after they share some of the play’s most meaningful meditations on the nature of love and friendship.
While there is little in the way of a set (an innovative, bicycle-part-based plane wreck aside), and the irregular costumes make for a somewhat motley ensemble, these shortcomings don’t detract from the story they seek to tell. As the Fox notes before he and his Little Prince part ways, what is essential is invisible to the eye – and is indeed present in this production. All in all, a heart-warming performance that does justice to Saint-Exupéry’s beloved novel.