“Some big building should be used,” wrote Benjamin Britten in an oddly prescriptive preface to Noye’s Fludde, “preferably a church – but not a theatre”. So much for that. English National Opera has joined forces with the Theatre Royal, Stratford East to prove the old boy wrong and between them they’ve conjured a minor miracle from his Chester Miracle Play, albeit a flawed one, setting it not just in a playhouse but behind a proscenium arch with a Lion King-style auditorium spill.

Marcus Farnsworth (Noah) and his sons © Marc Brenner
Marcus Farnsworth (Noah) and his sons
© Marc Brenner

Britten’s community opera dates from 1958 and is one of his most accessible works, awash with catchy melodies plus the cunning integration of three singalong hymns to emphasise its status as religious entertainment. Alongside a core of professional musicians and singers the score calls for a phalanx of amateur performers, both singing and playing, and it is here that Lyndsey Turner’s production falters. For while Sem, Ham, Jaffett and their wives are all present and correct (double cast from junior talent and refreshingly unschooled in vocal technique), not to mention a veritable menagerie of miniature Ark dwellers, the massed young musicians from Newham Music and Redbridge Music Hub languish upstage in the tenebrous heights along with a skeleton crew of ENO Orchestra principals, hidden from view and not always audible let alone visible.

Marcus Farnsworth (Noah) and the animals © Marc Brenner
Marcus Farnsworth (Noah) and the animals
© Marc Brenner

It’s a short show – even counting time for ENO’s Head of Music Martin Fitzpatrick to school us in the hymns we were out within the hour – but the charm factor is vast. Britten is often derided as prim and middle-class, yet when a shoal of small children in animal masks invades the auditorium squealing “Kyrie eleison” it’s hard to think of another composer who’d treat the Ordinary of the Mass quite so subversively. (Peter Maxwell Davies perhaps, but that would have been anguished, not joyful.) Turner’s production is 1940s grey, with Noye/Noah’s family aptly dressed as wartime evacuees, while Soutra Gilmour’s pen-and-ink set designs have a Beano aesthetic, unremittingly monochrome until the handsome Technicolor finale whose stunning video effects by Luke Halls reclaim with pride the original meaning of ‘rainbow’.

The marvellous Suzanne Bertish, an actress who's spend far too much of her career in America for my liking, declaimed superbly as the Voice of God, and mezzo-soprano Louise Callinan bristled with wrong-headed determination as Mrs Noye; but it was Marcus Farnsworth’s Noye who ran the show with his experienced stage presence allied to an authoritative baritone.

Marcus Farnsworth (Noah) and the dove © Marc Brenner
Marcus Farnsworth (Noah) and the dove
© Marc Brenner

Yes, the co-existence of amateurs and professionals is weighted firmly towards the latter in Turner's Noye's Fludde, along with high production values that undermine the composer’s low-tech intentions, but they have a delight all their own. There’s guilty pleasure to be had in watching a huge four-storey Ark slide on from the wings, and in the ravishing choreography of Wayne McGregor and Punchdrunk alumna Sarah Dowling for the close-to-actual-size young ballerinas who dance the Raven and Dove. While watching, it quickly becomes clear that any grunginess in the show is studied grunginess, synthetic and artful; but if you’re willing to be manipulated there’s a wondrous hour in store.

****1