Ulla’s Odyssey review at Kings Place, London – ‘clear, involving storytelling’
After nearly five years based at Islington’s King’s Head Theatre, OperaUpClose is venturing into new arenas. Kings Place is host to Ulla’s Odyssey, by New Zealand composer Anthony Young and Canadian librettist Leanna Brodie, winner of OperaUpClose’s 2014 Flourish chamber opera competition. Aimed at young audiences (aged seven plus), it is inspired both by Homer’s Odyssey and the experiences of real-life, teenage round-the-world sailors.
Ulla is attempting her own solo voyage in The Homer. Sarah Minns plays the teenager with a degree of wide-eyed wonder, but also underlines a keen streak of determination. Ulla returns in triumph, if not in the unalloyed fashion she envisaged, and with – poignantly – the willingness to learn lessons about herself. Like Odysseus, she braves storms and encounters sea monsters along the way.
Poseidon becomes an imperious sea-goddess; Cyclops is cast as Cy-Ops, an unyielding robotic security system; and the sea monsters are Sylla and Garibdis – the former almost succeeds in acquiring Ulla’s puppet cat Binnacle for supper, while the latter, formed of trash discarded by humans, gently introduces a note of environmental consideration. Aside from their roles, the cast members deftly bring props into play and animate Binnacle, as well as playing out the voices of Ulla’s parents.
The neat direction leads to clear, involving storytelling, and the cast engages enthusiastically with the younger audience members, who can sit close up to the action if they choose. Part of the strength of Ulla’s Odyssey is the judicious balance of music and speech, so that the former contributes a genuinely dramatic dimension. A children’s opera approached with grown-up values.