The Lost Thing

Based on the book by Shaun Tan, music and words Jules Maxwell, director and choreographer Ben Wright
The Royal Opera and Candoco Dance Company
Linbury Theatre, Royal Opera House

A dystopian tale, a storybook (almost a graphic novel in its illustrative detail) written by Shaun Tan in 2000, made into an Oscar-winning short 15-minute animated film in 2010 (it can be accessed on YouTube), The Lost Thing has now been adapted by Ben Wright and Jules Maxwell into a family opera (6+), and it is a joy.

A collaborative effort between The Royal Opera and Candoco Dance Company—integrating a modest-sized ensemble of disabled and non-disabled musicians, singers and dancers—the Lost Thing rather than Tan’s round metal buoy spouting crab / octopus legs is now an organic being made up of at least eight carrot limbs and mossy top, evolving, mutating, but certainly not belonging on a concreted-over planet where many species are extinct.

Shaun is metal detecting for bottle tops on the beach (in a futuristic Melbourne) when he spots the benign lost creature unlike anything he has ever seen. He takes it home, but dad worries about germs and mum about cleanliness—“its feet are filthy”.

Everyone else is too busy to help him in this grey city. His laid-back retro cool friend Pete can’t help either. Some things just can’t be helped. Shaun keeps it in his bedroom for a while but that is no solution. In the end, he takes it to the Orwellian / Kafkaesque Department of Odds and Ends. A janitor tells him not to leave it there, as it will be forgotten.

A magic green leaf arrow leads them to an anonymous door with a green bell. It opens—walls collapse to reveal a lush tropical garden, where the creature feels quite at home with the gorillas and other happy animals—he has found his home. But what have we lost in our denuded of greenery cities with their dutiful ‘1984’ workers?

A parable put to Maxwell’s truly wonderful music, and witty libretto (some of it ‘Edward Lear’ nonsensical), beautifully sung and played by a mixed ensemble of remarkable talents (Rachel Starritt on piano, James Douglas on cello, Sonia Allori on clarinet, Jez Wiles percussion and Siobhan Clough on violin).

Peter Braithwaite’s deep baritone, Beth Langford’s clear mezzo-soprano, Collin Shay’s counter-tenor, Victoria Oruwari and Melanie Pappenheim’s sopranos, take on multiple roles, backing and specific, but it is the well cast central character, sung and danced by Candoco company member Joel Brown, who must and does carry the show. His mellifluous voice (Rufus Wainwright comes to mind) interprets Maxwell’s score with warmth and sensitivity, and his wheelchair dancing, if not in David Toole’s league yet, is fluid and precise.

But, I suspect, for the six-year-old in the seat in front of me it is a combination of shape-shifting creature, libretto surtitles he can read, sound captions for the hard of hearing (singing overlaps, glockenspiel arpeggio, graceful piano, harpsichord, rumble, wind blows, mysterious strings (I may be imagining this one), brisk strings, lilting piano, chimpanzee call…), Will Holt’s cosy set and Douglas O’Connell’s animation skyscape (in Tan’s style and colour scheme), which fills the top half of the stage above the musicians arrayed at the back.

An inclusive production not too long: half an hour each half with a good interval in-between for refreshments. Why the theatre is half full on the evening I see it I can't imagine. Take your children and your inner child, and enjoy. “So you want to hear a story”—say that backwards—the singers sing it forwards and backwards, there’s versatility for you. Can we rewind our ecological disasters just as easily? Take heed.

Reviewer: Vera Liber