“Really emotional and quite magical,” says Director Peter Glanville about Skitterbang Island, an opera for very young children, collaboratively put together by Polka Theatre and the Little Angel Theatre. “I know ‘magical’ is a world that’s overused – but in a sense you really are taken into this other world, this other island.” When one of the actors in the production, Lowri James, starts to animate the puppet of Skitterbang, the word “magical” does not seem far off the mark. Complete with long ears, fluttering wings, and a movable brow that allows for changes in expression, Skitterbang seems enchanting and real simply moving around on a table.
Aimed at children aged 3-6, Skitterbang Island returns to play at both theatres following a short run in 2010. “It kind of combines The Tempest with Wall-E,” Glanville remarks, referring to the opera’s plot. Completely sung-through, it follows a young girl, Marie, shipwrecked and separated from her uncle, as she finds friendship and companionship in the strange island inhabitant Skitterbang, only to run into further conflict when her uncle eventually finds her. It features an enviable creative team: Glanville, Polka’s Artistic Director, is directing the piece, with a score by Martin Ward (composer for the Olivier-award winning production of The Wind in the Willows) and libretto by acclaimed playwright Phil Porter.
Though the idea of an opera for young children may at first seem strange, Natalie Raybould, who puppeteers and sings the part of Marie, describes how Ward and Porter “knew how to balance serious and silly” in creating Skitterbang Island, which features the usual trademarks of an opera. “We wanted it to have all the complexities of an opera, we didn’t want to compromise,” Glanville agrees. “So it’s sung through, it’s got arias, it’s got duets, it’s got trios, it’s got all the things you would expect from an opera.” Raybould further asserts the authenticity of the piece. “There’s no ‘writing for kids’ music in this,” she says, “it’s exactly like their music for adults. And it’s just as fun, just as emotional.”
The production combines the specialities of both theatres – the puppetry expertise of the Little Angel, where Glanville was Artistic Director until November, and Polka’s specialism of creating children’s theatre. With the Polka also collaborating on future projects with Royal & Derngate as well as the Royal Opera, Glanville suggests this sort of collaboration is partially a “sign of the times” in terms of funding cuts, but mainly that there is great artistic benefit to be gained from two theatres working together. He suggests that in Skitterbang Island, opera and puppetry go hand in hand for children because “with opera, you’re singing with these kind of arcs and shapes that are non-naturalistic, and of course what we’re looking for in puppetry is the one gesture that can extend and carry through the sentence, and allow the audience to then imagine that character coming to life.” Raybould demonstrates this when she takes me to “meet” Marie. Referring to the puppet by name, and showing how simple changes in the puppet’s position can imply a range of emotions, it becomes clear how easily Sue Dacre’s puppets can appear lifelike.
It is the music, however, that helps the most to bring the characters to life. “Music gets you in the gut,” Raybould says. “Even when you know the story and you know what you’re going to sing. It still gets you. It still takes you by surprise. The whole place reacts to the music.” Raybould created her own show, Lullaby, for babies, using a combination of music, light and shadow to explore the relationship between baby and parent or carer. She strongly believes in young children experiencing music, and notes how when Skitterbang accepts the apology of Marie’s uncle, “that’s like at the end of The Marriage of Figaro, when the Countess forgives the Count. And the music tells the story even more than the words do.” Skitterbang Island, owing a great deal to the music, also manages to explore wider themes of trust and forgiveness. Raybould notes the importance of having the adult character in the opera admit to being wrong, “which is a serious issue in itself.”
“Children really should have work exploring the human experience in the same way that we would expect that as adults,” Glanville agrees. This is something that Skitterbang Island achieves, and looks to be something we will see more of during Glanville’s tenure as Polka’s Artistic Director. He is currently looking into an immersive project that explores the possibilities and uses of the whole building, a piece developed from material created by children themselves, and the possibility of more extensive touring, but is also “thinking a lot about professional development,” and is “looking to set up a more cohesive programme that allows artists that want to create work for children and young people to come together and explore ideas through a kind of initial scratch phase, so actually we’re supporting people potentially over a process of two or three years, in terms of taking an idea through to realisation.”
This development seems to be something present in Skitterbang Island as well. The production has had a rehearsal period in which to rethink and remember the piece, as it has not been performed since 2010. All three performers were in the original production, and Raybould notes that “it’s a luxury to be able to rethink it like this, rather than hurry back in.” Although there could have been the possibility of simply attempting to slot everything back in quickly, “happily Polka and Little Angel don’t think like that, and it’s lovely to be able to take the time.” Glanville acknowledges that the audience will find the production, in parts, “really soothing; at other points it’s going be engaging, and it takes them to a lot of different places emotionally. But I think it’s unique.” The emotion he describes speaks through the music and puppetry – and although developing and changing, Skitterbang Island seems as magical as ever.
Skitterbang Island is at the Little Angel Theatre from 26 April to 15 June, and at the Polka Theatre from 25 June to 16 August. More information and tickets form the Polka’s website and the Little Angel’s website.