The Unicorn Theatre, a sharply designed building that mixes it with the best of London’s South Bank just a stone’s throw from London Bridge, has been exposing young people to professional theatre for an astonishing seven decades. It’s a gem that’s unknown to most adults because children are both its constituency and its raison d’être. Yet every year within the theatre’s spacious auditorium – a modern treasure with a flexible stage and intimate wraparound seating – the Unicorn’s challenging programme of events caters for everyone from small tots to young adults... although not necessarily all at the same time.

Rachael Lloyd (Dido) and Eyra Norman (Belinda)
© Tristram Kenton

One unexpected inclusion in this year’s listings has been a collaboration between the Unicorn and English National Opera on what is ominously termed “a modern reimagining” of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. The target audience for this production is anyone aged 11 and above, which shouldn’t involve much adjustment to the plot given the bruising content available in 12-certificate action films, but unfortunately the director Purni Morell has sandpapered every trace of spikiness from the opera until all that’s left is an anodyne sequence of musical numbers. We lose not only the male hero’s name from the title but also about ten minutes of Purcell’s most dramatic music. Gone are the passion, the sorcery and the suffering, and even Dido’s self-destruction by poison is rendered by little more than a graceful swoon.

Njabulo Madlala (Aeneas) and Daniel Rudge (Chorus)
© Tristram Kenton

There is a certain irony to this cleansing exercise, for Dido and Aeneas was originally performed by the young gentlewomen of Josiah Priest's school in Chelsea. Nevertheless I was rooting for this show (now retitled Dido) and willed it to work; but unfortunately the production is the victim of its own good intentions. Morell’s pursuit of relevance is rendered doubly dull by the decision to update the ancient Carthaginian tale to our own parochial world with Dido’s confidante Belinda now recast as her teenage daughter. There is no gain here and it adds neither enlightenment nor accessibility; indeed quite the reverse. At least set and costume designer Khadija Raza conjures one pleasing nod to operatic convention by introducing a Glyndebourne moment of hampers and champers played out on a gleaming green astro-sward until, in a moment of ultra-realism, it rains.

ENO Chorus
© Tristram Kenton

Seven fine musicians from ENO’s own orchestra, bolstered by the eloquent theorbo of David Miller, played Purcell’s score with idiomatic fluency under Valentina Peleggi’s firm direction, while a dozen sensitive choristers supplied the opera’s chorus, semi-chorus and small solo parts. Together they created an aural vista of the highest class. The three principals did well too, although Rachael Lloyd, admirable as ever, has a mezzo timbre that’s a few watts too bright for her mournful Dido. Her lament “When I am laid in earth” should ideally be more heartrending than it was here. Njabulo Madlala, who sang Jim in ENO’s recent Porgy and Bess, gave a strong account of the underwritten Aeneas, while 18-year-old Eyra Norman, an undergraduate at the RCM, more than held her own as Belinda with a youthful soprano that was wholly attuned to the director’s concept.

Curiously in the circumstances, Dido features a remarkable amount of alcoholic quaffing. The guilt- and consequence-free consumption of wine, beer and bubbly are all to the fore in a production that nevertheless alerts young spectators to call Mind or the Samaritans if they have been affected by any themes in the production. Mixed messages, methinks.