Princess and the Pea

How the ACO is adapting a ‘Princess & the Pea’ origin story

Award-winning playwright Finegan Kruckemeyer is turning the Hans Christian Andersen classic into an inspiring stage production celebrating the small things in life.

“What our princess really notices is a line of ants on a leaf, or the way that the frogs hold their breath in the pond. Or she notices a boy saying ‘I love you’ to a girl down in the city far away.”

Australian playwright Finegan Kruckemeyer has delved into the character and story of one of Hans Christian Andersen-slash-Disney’s most intuitive and sensitive princesses – the princess who can feel a small, soft pea even under a pile of 20 opulent mattresses, foisted upon her as a test by a dubious mother-in-law.

The tale of a reluctant princess

“She’s a reluctant princess,” though, according to Fin. “At the start of her life she feels a bit burdened by the title, and the requirement to be held in a castle and treated with reverence by everybody around her.”

But, for the writer, this princess clearly has special qualities, and that’s what his retelling focusses on: “I deduced from her pea-noticing that the princess has these amazing super senses. She’s really attuned to the world, she can notice things that others don’t, and she has this really lovely finesse – an eye for what the world is, and the magic that it might hold. So we see her explore that.”

To summarise, Fin says “she has noble qualities as her birth right, but she has this gift as something innate in her. But it’s a gift that she can’t explore until she breaks free from all the other shackles and goes on her own adventure.”

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An origin story

In exploring what this adventure could be for the princess, Fin found himself on the brink of an origin story.

His ACO Families creation, The Princess, The Pea (and The Brave Escapee), then is in part inspired by what is at the heart of Hans Christian Andersen’s original Princess & the Pea fairytale, but equally by what is not discussed in the story.

“I played upon all these lovely elements that we know so well,” he tells us. “The princess who comes in rain-soaked from the outside world and knocks on the palace door, asks if she can come in, and has to prove herself with the pile of mattresses and the pea that the mother-in-law leaves for her.”

The question, in this ACO Families production, is why she was there in the first place.

“What isn’t discussed in Hans Christian Andersen’s original story is where she came from, and what all those years – and all those travels – in between were that took her from the place she grew up, to this palace that she eventually finds herself arrived at in the middle of the night,” Fin explains.

That’s what the new ACO Families show will help us discover.

As well as Fin’s ingenious writing, the story will be brought to life with stage direction by Tim McGarry (There’s a Sea in my Bedroom), production design by Melanie Liertz (How to Catch a Star) and original music – which will be performed live on the stage this Spring – by composer, Bryony Marks.

“Bryony is phenomenal! She can really flesh out all those moments in this lovely lyrical, contemplative, exciting way, and take us along for the ride,” Fin enthuses.

“I deduced from her pea-noticing that the princess has these amazing super senses”

Live music will add depth to the story

“To have these four musicians and know that they’ll be there live, bringing this score to it, is really special and means that, yeah, we’ll be able to look at what the princess is doing, but we’ll also be able to feel what she is feeling.”

Bryony, an Australian film and theatre composer with a string of AACTAs and other awards to her name, will enhance the emotional element with her craft. Awards aside, Bryony is also an ACO subscriber – hear, hear! – and describes the prospect of working with the Orchestra as “very exciting”.

In turn, Fin describes working with the composer to produce an original score as “magical”.

“Whenever I do a development for a show, I’m always really interested in what the composer thinks: the designer knows the landscape of the story better than I do, the actor knows the heart of the character better than I do, but the composer always knows the emotional score of the story better than I do.

“So where I might be talking about events, or lines of dialogue, what is said, what occurs, how the momentum moves on, the composer can usually reveal to me what is felt. And what is felt is arguably the most important bit of any piece of art, I think, because it’s the thing you take away, or make your own, or you recognise in yourself when you’re watching theatre.”

The powerfully important role of music.

“That’s all incredibly nice for Fin to say,” Bryony laughs, “But rubbish! He’s captured the story so beautifully with his words and his script is incredibly emotional. So Mel [our production designer] and I are very much responding to Fin’s words.”

Writer Finegan Kruckemeyer and composer Bryony Marks with production designer Melanie Liertz and director Tim McGarry

Writer Finegan Kruckemeyer and composer Bryony Marks, with production designer Melanie Liertz and director Tim McGarry at ACO Pier 2/3

There’s a beautiful collaborative spirit around the show already. “It is so genuinely collaborative, and so informative as to what everyone else in the different departments need. I haven’t done a workshop like this before, and it’s actually quite revolutionary,” Bryony says.

Keeping her audience in mind, the composer will use a variety of genres and styles to give the on-stage action emotional depth.

What genres of music will we hear?

“We start with a concert string quartet sound, so something that’s taking itself as seriously as you do when you go and hear chamber music in a concert hall, and then we splinter off into a variety of genres that are dictated by the sensations of the different scenes in the story,” the composer explains.

“In one particular scene, for example, there’s a frenetic train sequence, and the music sketch that I’ve written for that scene is in a modern music style in that it’s frantic and arrhythmic. And then that evolves into a sizzling-hot lazy day at the seaside, and the music becomes almost jazzy. So different genres will brush up against each other.”

Bryony describes being “very aware of a short attention span” in the enthusiastic young audiences we’ll see attending Princess. The end of the show, according to Fin and Bryony, is a peaceful and gentle place, but there will be lots of action and excitement before we arrive there.

Having fun along the way is definitely not about ‘dumbing down’, though: “We are all aiming for a really satisfying story structure and something that just really emotionally lands by the end,” Bryony says. “Fin’s idea is just so beautiful and it’s a very moving and poignant idea that we’re attempting to express.”

“The fact that this show is about the small things in life – and celebrating those small things to the point that the more you look for them, the more fascinating they become – is guiding all of our creative decisions.”

Celebrating the small things in life

“I think what is so exciting about developing this show is that we are all committed to pursuing a singular idea in our various disciplines, and the singular idea comes from the poeticism and the beautiful simplicity of the ideas in Fin’s script,” Bryony says.

“The fact that this show is about the small things in life – and celebrating those small things to the point that the more you look for them, the more fascinating they become – is guiding all of our creative decisions.”

Fin himself has a passion for writing children’s shows, with many productions for young audiences and communities behind him.

“I think much of what interests me about the story on stage is what interests me about the people sitting in front of the stage. I love the fact that children watching a show notice things that often adults have forgotten to notice, and that they have a lovely attunement with the world, and they can discover the games in the world, and the way to make light of the world – and the way that a small moment is actually a big moment when you look at it the right kind of way.”

This is incredibly fitting when you think of the themes of appreciating the small, beautiful things in life that this magical retelling of Princess will explore.

“What I love about children’s theatre is that it’s often family theatre, so we’re presenting to an audience that is a child, and their parent, or a loved one, or a teacher. And to see them go on that journey of discovering together – the adult remembering, and the child recognising – can be really quite nice.”


The Princess, The Pea (and The Brave Escapee) premieres at ACO Pier 2/3, 27 Sep – 7 Oct. Tickets are just $35, with babies in arms going free. Click here to book tickets.