It is scientifically proven that music is beneficial for young children’s development. The UK has various different pre-school activities for young ones stimulating their sense of rhythm, language and musical expression. And alongside that we have a great selection of theatres specialising in children’s theatre, making everything from Shakespeare to famous bedtime stories accessible for the new generation. However, in my years of working with children and being an over-enthusiastic theatregoer I have never come across an opera for the very young ones. But now – defying the ever-so-popular myth that opera is for old people eating gold and breathing diamond-dust – the Young Vic and ENO have teamed up and produced The Way Back Home, an opera for the youngest based on the famous children’s book by Oliver Jeffers.
It is old news that children are very hard to satisfy, let alone keep entertained. But with Vicki Mortimer’s clever design clearly matching the drawings from the book, the Young Vic is transformed into a book cut-out, with space-lights, aeroplanes and Mars-men – not to mention a huge, slightly depressed penguin that makes Monty look like a fluff ball. The Boy is tired of sailing and wishes to fly in space: his pet penguin is of no help because, after all, he is only a penguin. But when the Boy discovers an aeroplane in the cupboard – hidden by the Gizmos, creatures that create all sounds in the world – he decides to embark on an adventure into space. However he forgets the petrol and has to land on the moon where he meets a Mars-girl, and the two have to find a way of getting back home.
Joanna Lee’s score is original and sparkles as the musicians tackle every possible percussion instrument, pots and pans and a few magic tricks. The music is engaging, warm and most of all lots of fun, with the four Gizmos providing brilliant sound effects and vocals. They show that opera doesn’t have to be tragic at all, and that opera singers are incredible all-rounders and not just amazing vocalists. Victoria Simmonds and Aoife O’Sullivan create a great relationship dynamic as the Boy and the Martian, and hands down to Peter Hobday and his comical timing as the wonderful (and slightly OCD) penguin, who is left behind to fight off the Gizmos before they hijack the aeroplane.
The short performance is slick and packed with fun effects and humour, while the direction is clear, simple but very effective. I wonder if there’s anything Katie Mitchell can’t do, but the answer is probably no. She shows her eye for detail and that her heart is in the right place, making theatre and opera accessible for the very young. It’s a great opportunity to introduce children to opera, and being visually stunning in all its childish cuteness it’s a great first show for the little ones. I had tremendous fun, laughing hysterically at the penguin’s classy slapstick and being eyed by sceptical children way more mature than me. A great way to experience opera in a less bombarding scale.
The Way Back Home is playing at the Young Vic until 23 December. For more information and tickets, see the Young Vic website.