A dark forest clearing on a stormy night; a poor woodcutter's cottage, where there dwells a beautiful and fearless girl; and a mysterious polar bear, who is actually an enchanted prince... The Norwegian fairytale which inspires East O' The Sun, West O' The Moon hovers somewhere between Beauty and the Beast and The Snow Queen, yet is emphatically its own original tale of true love, suspicion, bravery, adventure and wit. Gleaming with creativity and humour, this beautiful minimalist production by workshOPERA for the Tête à Tête Festival at Central St Martins will charm audiences of all ages, and comes thoroughly recommended as a magically surreal, amusing and moving little opera, executed with real skill and passion by a strong cast.

Laura Ruhí Vidal (Girl) and Joseph Padfield (Bear) © Claire Shovelton
Laura Ruhí Vidal (Girl) and Joseph Padfield (Bear)
© Claire Shovelton

Melodious, atmospheric music by James Garner brings warmth, sincerity and tension to a fierily original libretto and structure by Anna Pool, who gives us not only a great story to enjoy, but some truly special characters (including a witch with multiple-personality-disorder), some unusual structural elements (including a dance), and not forgetting the exquisitely-mannered singing polar bear. Garner's restrained palette of piano, celeste, wind and strings (including a guitar) makes an alternatively strong and delicate sound under Harry Sever's deft baton.

The plot is passionate and fast-paced. The Girl (Laura Ruhí Vidal) is persuaded by the Bear (Joseph Padfield) to come and live with him, on the promise that her poverty-stricken, adoring parents will become rich ("wonderfully, staggeringly rich," sing the well-matched Alison Langer and Rick Zwart, in a gloriously exultant duet). Though she has her reservations ("This woodland maid is poor and proud,"), the Girl goes with the Bear to his castle, where everything she wants is provided by unseen hands. Her only companion, by day, is the Bear, and a man who seems to come to her at night, in her dreams, whom she soon grows to love. She cannot resist trying to see his face; with a candle given by her mother, she finds one night that he is in fact real, handsome, and a Prince, doomed by his evil stepmother to be a Bear by day, a man by night. By seeing him, she has ruined his hope of breaking that spell, and he is at once whisked away to the castle East O'The Sun and West O'The Moon, to be married to his stepmother's ghastly Troll daughter. The Girl seeks the help of the Hag (the magnificent Bethan Langford, who performs three different witches trapped in a single body), and all four Winds (represented by large puppet masks, sung by Emily Kyte, Gustav Hasfjord and others), to finally rescue her gorgeous Prince (Joseph Padfield) from the clutches of a gloriously wicked Troll princess (played in hilarious, pigtail-flicking drag by Iestyn Morris).

Iestyn Morris (Troll Princess) © Claire Shovelton
Iestyn Morris (Troll Princess)
© Claire Shovelton

Though this is an ensemble piece in which everyone works hard and deserves praise, the principals are especially strong. Alison Langner is unforgettably acid, petulant and loving as the much-put-upon Mother, who creates much of the comedy in the first half; Rick Zwart is immediately likeable as the playful, ailing Father. Laura Ruhí Vidal gives a fabulous performance as the brave, resourceful Girl, singing Garner's lyrical harmonies with warmth and colour, and giving her role a great sense of innocence determined to trounce adversity. Joseph Padfield is strangely moving as the Bear, projecting his voice well and with good emotional range through the almost puppet-like costume designed by Anna Driftmier which obscures his face completely; as the Prince, his dashing good looks and emotive acting can come into play alongside his excellent voice. Bethan Langford's Hag is a tour de force: playing three parts, in one fast-paced solo aria, to an audience on two sides of the room, Langford seems not only unphased but positively relishing the challenge. Finally, Iestyn Morris' Troll Princess is fabulous; hilarious and brilliantly sung.

The opera's initial storm is brilliantly evoked by a cluster of glowing lanterns swirling in the dark, whose tracery depicts the branches of forest trees and the outline of small villages: Anna Driftmier's design concept is immaculately consistent throughout, simple and strong without being overpowering. Clever folding tracery screens, recalling the lanterns, later transform themselves from humble cottage walls to palace windows in a series of smooth scene changes, only one of which is a little prolonged. Driftmier's costumes are similarly impressive, in harmony with her overall vision.

Though a relatively short piece at present, Pool's ambitious vision, Driftmier's strong look and Garner's lovely soundscape could easily be extended into a longer work. There is enough energy and creativity here for much more. As I left, I overheard another audience member saying, "Why did it have to stop? I wanted it to go on and and on. I was really enjoying that." I couldn't have put it better myself.