Wolf Witch Giant Fairy
Conceived by Clare Beresford, Dominic Conway, and Alexander Scott
The Royal Opera and Little Bulb in association with Farnham Maltings
Linbury Theatre, Royal Opera House
I have seen Little Bulb at Battersea Arts Centre at least five times, so I can say I’m a big fan of their quaintly comic, self-parodying, Edinburgh fringe style, not taking selves seriously, silliness—the best artists are almost always those who have not the lost their inner child. But, for me, their considerable musical talents (“that’s a pretty chord”) are the harness for all the above. Director Alexander Scott and musical director Dominic Conway have done a lovely job.
Their Orpheus transferred from BAC to the Linbury and a new audience beckoned. So, here they are again at the Royal Opera House with a devised folk opera, a mélange of fairy tales from Europe with Central and Eastern European music to match. Joined no less by proper opera singer Peter Brathwaite as narrator.
Wolf Witch Giant Fairy, created, devised and performed by an ensemble consisting of Clare Beresford, Dominic Conway, Miriam Gould, Eugénie Pastor, Tom Penn, Alexander Scott, Shamira Turner, Jon Whitten, and Claire Wild, who play multiple roles—trees, birds, giants, cows, golden goose, villagers, you get the picture, rough and ready—and fascinating multiple instruments which include a cello mandolin, a Belorussian cymbaly, bouzouki, violin, flute, accordion, as well as the more standard keyboards, guitar and so on. Wow!
Samuel Wyer’s costumes are the sort children might throw on (sophisticated faux naïve of course) and the set is storybook perfect with some clever sleight of hand. But one thing that does worry my five- and seven-year-old companions is the sound level. They sit with fingers in ears throughout, though the youngest tells me she can still hear it all, thank goodness. They are both spellbound.
Do the performers need to be miked to that level in the intimate Linbury studio? Surely Brathwaite needs no sound augmentation. Red Riding Hood Clare Beresford sounds shrill, and scary Baba Yaga (Claire Wild) the Witch’s top notes are ear-shattering. Ear defenders are on offer for sensitive children’s ears—use them. My adult companion was told there was no need for them as it wasn't so loud. An opportunity missed.
But what about the story, you may well ask, the weave of several old tales. You all know Red Riding Hood, who is distracted by a grandma-eating (and here castanet-playing) Wolf. Red Riding Hood is easily distracted. But you don't know that she meets evil Baba Yaga (great Firebird headdress) who rides a pestle and mortar in Russian fairy tales. Nor the rest of it...
A friendly Cat (a bit Lewis Carroll) rescues her and gives her a magic comb, hat and shawl. She then meets some old, impoverished villagers who have had their Golden Goose (Eugénie Pastor I remember as Eurydice in Orpheus) and golden harp stolen, and the cow’s milk has dried up. Can you guess who took them?
Yes, the Giant (gypsy violinist Miriam Gould with big hand and big head in the clouds has a wonderful voice). Red Riding Hood offers to take it to market, and meets a Peddler en route, who exchanges magic beans for the cow—hmm, what would Jack make of her usurping his fairy tale role? Anyway, she retrieves the golden things; the villagers (with basket heads) are happy; the Giant has made “a giant mistake” (do I hear a panto groan?).
But the story is not finished yet. What about the Fairy? Ah yes, the Fairy (a hairy Jon Whitten) in his gossamer wings and goggles turns out to be Red Riding Hood’s grandmother—bit of backstory here—who raised a daughter and a granddaughter with magic red thread from her burnt wings. Red Riding Hood’s fiery mother sets off to the rescue, cuts open the Wolf at the hip—poor thing has his red guts out and dies, wittily of course.
And all ends well—not for the Wolf. I’m giving up spoilers because of the uncertainty of our times. Sadly, some shows in this run have been pulled because of our present situation, so I’m very pleased we make it for my last show before Christmas. The Nutcracker, the money-spinner for the ROH, has closed in the main house. Sad times, and jollities are strained.
Nothing strained about Wolf Witch Giant Fairy. All the shows are relaxed, and there are surtitles for those that can read—all-inclusive, which is wonderful. But the house is not full. Only sixty-five minutes long, perfect for five-plus. My little ones concentrate fiercely and are not distracted by wanderings, though there is little of that.
Join this “ragtag band of wild musicians”—ragtag maybe but not wild, though some of the men are very hairy. But “beware the girl in red you monsters of the wood”. If you don't want to end up like the “canis lupus” with his “fat engorged belly”, take care, don’t be greedy, but be like that lovely gentleman Cat. A charming evening, but I think I preferred Little Bulb at BAC, where to my mind the ambience suits them better.
Reviewer: Vera Liber