Review: Coraline @ Barbican Theatre

Embargo on image use until 9.30pm on Thursday 29th March

It was through the the Royal Opera House’s volunteer list that I ended up at the schools matinee of their new production at the Barbican, Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Coraline. Slightly apprehensively, I took my seat in what must be worst seat in the house (squished up against the ceiling at the far-left side of the Gods) and surveyed the mass of chattering 12 year olds below me. When Turnage himself appeared at the side of the stage (well, he didn’t appear to me – restricted view) to give a lovely speech to the kids about why he had written this opera for them and that they could be brave and do anything they wanted to like Coraline, my heart was warmed and I got quite excited. What followed was a beautifully put-together fairy tale about one little girl’s battle to defeat her evil Other Mother and get her parents back, full of Alice In Wonderland-like charm and a cast of colourful characters giving committed performances (much more colourful, thank goodness, than the awful brown that seems to be the main feature of the Barbican Theatre’s stage).

Embargo on image use until 9.30pm on Thursday 29th March

The look of the production was not what I expected – what with all theatres these days generally featuring slightly abstract, often beautifully designed but not necessarily representative images on their posters and websites, I am often surprised at the way productions actually end up looking. Coraline’s set was relatively realistic, simple but effective, with none if the mouldering Victorian gloom I thought I would see. There were many parallels, especially in the look and costumes of Coraline and the Ghost Children (an excellently harmonised trio of emerging opera stars), with the 2009 animated film – an understandable choice due to its popularity. The children loved the ‘magic tricks’ that had been incorporated into the props, while I was more intrigued by how the button eyes of the Other Mother and Other Father had been affixed – they looked very creepy indeed! I found the direction relatively unimaginative, and wished that the few little elements of physical theatre had been spun out more – people just standing and talking to each other, when in fact they’re singing complicated contemporary classical music, is sometimes just a bit boring.

Embargo on image use until 9.30pm on Thursday 29th March

Turnage’s score is very ‘contemporary opera’ – an excellently orchestrated, suitably murky score sans memorable melodies. I was impressed that he had not settled for anything easy-to-please – the only thing ‘child-friendly’ about this production was Coraline’s propensity to address everything to the audience, which was admittedly effective. The score shines in its ability to render almost every word intelligible, doing away with the need for surtitles and providing refreshing clarity in an English-language opera. Whilst I wouldn’t have minded more ‘tunes’, and had hoped especially for a setting of the little ditty Coraline’s father sings to her in the book (‘O My Twitchy Witchy Girl’), the kids didn’t seem to mind.

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Rory Mullarkey’s libretto, though it worked well in tandem with the music to convey the major plot points, was a bit disappointing to someone like me, who knows the source material very well. A lot of the quirky lines, that definitely aren’t essential to the plot but make the book so special, were cut, as were several major characters (including one of my favourites, Coraline’s sarcastic sidekick, the Cat). Personal quibbles aside, it was a very good exercise in demonstrating how to get to the bones of a story and adapt in for another genre. I look forward to finding out whether I will see the same in Mullarkey’s libretto for David Sawer’s The Skating Rink, an opera adapted from the Chilean author Roberto Bolaño’s novel of the same name, which is receiving its world premiere at Garsington this summer.

Embargo on image use until 9.30pm on Thursday 29th March

When Mary Bevan (Coraline) tweeted that the schools’ matinee of Coraline was her ‘favourite moment in [her] career so far!’, I understood – I’d never seen such an enthusiastic audience and it must have felt incredible to perform to them. One should never forget that performances are made for audiences, and this show, though I would have liked it to be a bit ‘bigger’ and a bit more whimsically nightmarish (Gaiman-ish?), was doubtlessly successful in reaching and entertaining its target audience.

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Coraline played at the Barbican Theatre until 7th April 2018. For more information, click here.

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