Children’s Opera Proves Seriously Entertaining

By Sam Smith Last edited 46 months ago
Children’s Opera Proves Seriously Entertaining ★★★★☆ 4

Boy Meets Martian. Aoife O'Sullivan and Victoria Simmonds in The Way Back Home © Stephen Cummiskey

Londonist Rating: ★★★★☆

There are plenty of pantomimes and other family-orientated shows to take the kids to this Christmas, but the Young Vic in collaboration with English National Opera is offering something slightly different. The Way Back Home, the creation of composer Joanna Lee and librettist Rory Mullarkey, is actually an opera written for children (the target audience is 5 to 8 year olds), and is based on Oliver Jeffers’ eponymous picture book.

It tells of a boy (played by Victoria Simmonds) who crash lands a plane on the moon and ends up working with a Martian (Aoife O’Sullivan), who has done the same with her spaceship, to ensure that they both get back home. In the process, the pair builds an unlikely friendship as they also learn the importance of being where they truly belong.

The piece is slickly and innovatively staged by Katie Mitchell. Designer Vicki Mortimer has constructed a box-like set that resembles a television so that the eye is naturally drawn in to all of the action that occurs. All three-dimensional objects including armchairs, planes and televisions exist merely as paintings on cardboard that vaguely recall Russian primitivism.

Lee’s score is highly impressive, and (even if the musical parallel is not strictly accurate) feels reminiscent of Harrison Birtwistle’s Punch and Judy of 1968 and HK Gruber’s 1990s cabaret opera, Gloria - A Pig Tale. It should expand children’s horizons, while remaining accessible so that no child feels they are having something difficult imposed upon them.

The harmony singing of the four Gizmos (Alexa Mason, Katie Bray, Rupert Charlesworth and Alexander Robin Baker) is excellent, and this quartet is integral to the experience. As they explain to the audience, they are responsible for generating sound so that all barking of dogs and whirring of propellers is created with their voices. The orchestra is conducted by Stephen Higgins, who also dresses as a Gizmo, while all six singers are rising operatic stars of the highest calibre. The seventh performer is Peter Hobday who plays the silent Penguin, and while he spends the entire opera bundled up in a huge comical costume, his capers are important and movements highly skilful.

As a high quality and entertaining piece, The Way Back Home is practically the perfect show for children this Christmas. As for adults thinking of going without little ones, they may find there is much to appreciate, but whether it is enough to justify the time and expense of a journey across London for a fifty-minute piece remains questionable. Nevertheless, any senior going as a part of a family should enjoy the experience just as much as the youngsters, and the programme’s pretty nifty too!

Until 23 December (22 performances) at the Young Vic, 66 The Cut, Waterloo, London SE1 8LZ with start times of 14.00, 16.00, 16.30 and 18.00 (depending on the day). Tickets (adults, £15; children, £10): 020 7922 2922 or visit the Young Vic website.

Free hour-long workshops of storytelling and making inspired by The Way Back Home are available on 20 December at 15.00, 16.00 and 17.00. Places are open to ticket holders but are limited and need to be booked in advance. For more information and to book visit the English National Opera website.

Londonist received a complimentary ticket and programme from the English National Opera press team.

Last Updated 12 December 2014