The Firework-Maker’s Daughter

Composer David Bruce, libretto Glyn Maxwell based on a novel by Philip Pullman
Linbury Studio, Royal Opera House

Lauren Fagan as Lila, Wyn Pencarreg as Lalchand Credit: Alastair Muir
Lauren Fagan as Lila Credit: Alastair Muir
Tai Oney as Hamlet Credit: Alastair Muir
Lauren Fagan as Lila, Tai Oney as Hamlet, Peter Kirk as Chulak Credit: Alastair Muir
Ross Ramgobin as Rambashi, Tai Oney as Hamlet, Peter Kirk as Chulak Credit: Alastair Muir
Lauren Fagan as Lila Credit: Alastair Muir
Tai Oney as Hamlet Credit: Alastair Muir
Lauren Fagan as Lila Credit: Alastair Muir
Tai Oney as Hamlet, Ross Ramgobin as The King Credit: Alastair Muir

Chroma’s ensemble instruments arranged in a semi-circle, embracing the small dark Linbury stage, white lanterns garlanded above it: oh, look, there’s a harp, there’s an accordion, a double bass, a violin, a flute, and what about the gleaming gamelan sound producing percussion. Wow, this is going to be good, my eleven-year-old companion and I agree, but our expectations are soon deflated.

It gives me no pleasure to say that John Fulljames’s production of The Firework-Maker’s Daughter is just not dynamic enough. Evidently some pre-show preparation is needed. Our fault. The advice of my young companion is to read the story of the opera and programme notes beforehand, as he couldn't hear all the words being sung and hence couldn't engage.

And this is a child exposed to theatre from a very early age and surrounded by artists, actors, and musicians at home. Looking forward to his first opera, he spent most of the time checking his watch. Not an auspicious beginning to his journey into a new-to-him art form. I just hope it’s not aversion therapy.

I, too, was looking forward immensely to this adaptation of Philip Pullman’s delightfully witty magical adventure, which started out as a school play, and which Told By An Idiot staged with great invention more than a decade ago (I enjoyed it at the Lyric Hammersmith in 2004).

The tale of Lila (Lauren Fagan) and her adventures, with Hamlet the talking elephant and his enterprising keeper Chulak (Peter Kirk), in her determined pursuit of a career as a firework maker, which her father Lalchand (warmly sung by Wyn Pencarreg) opposes—a quest for the magical ingredients takes her up a mountain, across a river, an encounter with pirates, jungle animals, and the Goddess of the Emerald Lake.

A quest which leads her to the Fire-Fiend, her father being put in prison by the firework-loving King, and a firework-making competition to obtain his release: all the ingredients of daring childhood urges for independence, and the fears to overcome on the journey towards it.

Some fail-proof story this bursting of constraints, how could it possibly not deliver? The ensemble conducted by Alice Farnham is wonderful, the singing is excellent—countertenor Tai Oney astonishes with the sound he produces from under Hamlet’s head—and Indefinite Articles puppeteers Sally Todd and Steve Tiplady’s animation concepts—shadow puppets, paper, sand, oil, and ink—are very homely, just a source of light, a small screen, two old-fashioned overhead projectors, and imagination. A bit tame perhaps for the computer whizz generation, though that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

What is seriously lacking is staging dynamite. Director John Fulljames perhaps needs to join Lila on that search for Royal Sulphur. And characterisation. However hard they all run on the spot, the characters are going nowhere. Only Ross Ramgobin’s (memorable in Neil Bartlett's production of Benjamin Britten’s Owen Wingrave) career-shifting Rambashi has any sense of acting and projecting a role. He works very hard to involve the well-behaved audience, target age 6+.

With all the best will in the world The Firework-Maker’s Daughter doesn’t take off for me, and I so wanted it to. Dick Bird’s costume design is pure pleasure, especially Hamlet the lovesick beautiful elephant and the King in his Chinese brocade robes and long fingernails, but it alone is not enough to quicken the pace or the heart.

Premièred in 2013, nominated for the 2014 Olivier Award for Best New Opera Production, shown in New York and toured successfully in UK, maybe The Firework-Maker’s Daughter was simply having a tired night after all that exertion.

Reviewer: Vera Liber

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