BWW Reviews: TWO CARAVANS, King's Head Theatre, October 6 2013
What could be better than being young, being beautiful and being abroad? Plenty, as it turns out, if you're a strawberry picker from Ukraine being ripped off by The Farmer, the butcher, the baker and, if such things exist these days in Kent, the candlestickmaker too. But - and there's always a but - there's cameraderie amongst the downtrodden and, slowly, the flicker of love brightens the day. It's not exactly the tum-ti-tum-ti-tum-ti-tum cheerfulness of The Archers, but it's not The Grapes of Wrath either.
And it's an opera! Composer Guy Harries and librettist Ace McCarron won OperaUpClose's first Flourish Competition last year and - what a prize! - here it is, on stage. Based on Marina Lewycka's funny and poignant novel, the work isn't short of ambition, most of which, if not quite all, is realised.
If the writers owe much to Adam Speadbury-Maher and Robin Norton-Hale at the King's Head, they owe just as much to their young cast of five - is there harder work on stage than performing opera? Rosie Middleton's Polish Yola is all cleavage and confidence, the supervisor of the picking gang, who immediately senses trouble when innocent Ukrainian beauty Irina (Syvie Gallant) turns up with dreams of English Gentlemen. Instead, she meets a Russian nightmare, gangster/pimp Vulk (a smirking Alistair Sutherland), but she's rescued by a Ukrainian Gentleman (with poor personal hygiene), Andriy, charmingly played by Adam Torrance. The fourth picker on the chaingang is Emanuel, a gentle man, whose head is full of religion and guilt and whose heart is as pure as the snow that never visits his native Malawi.
All five of the cast sing magnificently - Mr Brathwaite's lone aria is a highlight, but Ms Middleton's power gives you all the thrill of opera up close. They're funny too - and they convince as we learn to love those we should love and, well, hate is a harsh word, but it's the mot juste for these kids' exploiters.
Despite so much that's so good (and getting opera exactly right is fiendishly difficult), there are a couple of flaws. The music is wonderfully, exotically, Eastern European - but it is a little one-paced for a two hour production. The superb lighting, with its outdoor glare and criminal shade, could have been reflected in the melodies. There's also just too many characters for a cast of five to deliver - yes, there are changes in accent, yes, there are changes in costume and yes, they even walk on differently, but opera requires plenty of concentration without working out if this is a new character or an old one coming back.
Nevertheless, if that's the price to pay for a new opera on the London stage with such committed performances from so talented a cast - and all at barely arm's length - it's a price worth paying. Don't miss the bittersweet tales of the inhabitants of the two eponymous caravans - there's nothing quite like it in town.