When you enter the auditorium at the new children’s opera How the Whale Became, the first thing you see is that the endlessly mutable stage at the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Studio Theatre is filled with stuff. Palettes, those funky thrown-together wooden crate-platform thingies used in storage are stacked everywhere: there are mountains of them. And there are big corroded basins of flowers, bonsais in old boots, pots and pans. Little cardboard houses the size of doll’s houses line the flatland of the stage and the mountains of debris – the houses are painted sky blue and have fluffy cloud patches all over them. There’s a grand piano on a stack of palettes and monstrously huge saxophones over there on the side.

Fflur Wyn, Njabulo Madlala and Andrew Dickinson © Catherine Ashmore / Royal Opera House
Fflur Wyn, Njabulo Madlala and Andrew Dickinson
© Catherine Ashmore / Royal Opera House

In the center of it all is a rectangular-shaped vegetable garden with carrots and cauliflower, pumpkins and whatsits. And behind that stands a booth that looks like a cross between a Tardis and a guitar. The whole stage is, well, a mess. But if there’s one thing kids love, it’s a MESS!

Even before the audience is seated, characters stroll out on the stage, and they’re a mess too. They look like they got their outfits in a 1930s charity shop that just exploded like a Christmas cracker, spewing shirts and caps, skirts and boots everywhere.

And who’s THAT with the violin? It’s got ears like a CAT! Yep, it’s a cat... good call, because when a cat yowls it sounds just like a screechy violin.

Everyone’s attention seems elsewhere, goofin’ around, talkin’ to the kids in the audience, and then someone starts to sing and the story has begun: “one boy went out to sow / carrots in a row”. That patchwork, strangely dressed band of actors is tending the vegetable patch. There’s a plant – a whalewort – in the garden, and it’s growing too big. “‘That’s very odd’, said God”. Wham! A head appears in the middle of the garden, in amongst the cauliflowers. Soon an arm emerges. And another arm. And then the whole whalewort, who is distressed by his enormous nature. As is everyone else, who decide communally to throw him into the sea, a silvery glittery bathtub, where he is at last at home, water spurting out of the top of his beanie.

James Mcoran-Campbell © Catherine Ashmore / Royal Opera House
James Mcoran-Campbell
© Catherine Ashmore / Royal Opera House
And that is the moral, the plot and the action of the opera: that all creatures need to become what they are meant to become in life. God, who at one time or another is sung by each of the singers, is a forgetful creator, and who wouldn’t be? He’s got a lot on his plate. Do you remember, asks one of the creatures, when God made us was it hot? Or was it cold?

The staging by Natalie Abrahami of this charming new opera, supported by Tom Scutt’s witty designs, is full of fun, suitable for a world that is constantly changing, growing and becoming more intricate and exciting, just like the viewers in the audience. The opera’s story was culled from a number of stories written by Ted Hughes in The Dreamfighter and Other Creation Tales. Edward Kemp wrote the libretto, which is concise, rhyming and playful. The composer, Julian Philips, is currently my hero for using not only accordion, violin, saw and woodwinds of a staggering variety, but also percussion that included numerous household items and a tree branch that rustled when shaken. Keyboards of different sorts and tonalities were played by the musical director, Andy Massey, for this most inventive of scores.

And the singers were wonderful, each singing a number of roles, including God, definitely a challenging role. Soprano Fflur Wyn sang Girl, Wild Cow and Polar Bear, a fur-conscious star of a part. Soprano Donna Lennard sang Frog, the not-quite-perfectly-realized creature who longs for another identity. Tenor Andrew Dickinson made a particularly boyish Boy and got to wear the best hat in the show as Wild Bull. Baritone James McOran-Campbell sang the ominous Leftovers and also got to shake his booty as the Peacock in blue tights and yellow and red-striped high-heeled Wellies. Baritone Njabulo Madlala made a lovely whale and a poignant elephant with an egg whisk for a tail.

Looking for something new and adventurous? This is the ticket for child and adult alike. So go!

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