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Coraline review at Barbican Theatre – ‘magical opera based on Neil Gaiman’s novella’

Mary Bevan in Coraline at Barbican Theatre, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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Mark-Anthony Turnage’s new opera Coraline represents a departure for its 57-year-old composer.

Its source is a multi-award-winning children’s novella by Neil Gaiman, previously turned into an animated film and now reconfigured as a libretto by playwright Rory Mullarkey. The result is essentially a family opera, with plenty of children in the audience for its first performance.

Coraline is the story of an 11-year-old girl who enters a mysterious next-door apartment through a theoretically bricked-up door to discover a sinister mirror image of her own family home occupied by another mother and another father – like her own but with black-button eyes.

Finding herself in increasingly dangerous territory, she draws on her intelligence and bravery to make good her escape, taking with her as she does so both her now-imprisoned real parents while also freeing some ghostly children.

The result possesses elements of a classic fairytale set within an ambience that combines the everyday with the dark and the grotesquely comic.

It’s an appealing and potent mix, brilliantly presented here visually in Aletta Collins’ sharply drawn production within characterful sets by Giles Cadle that use a revolve to switch effortlessly between one flat and another, including those occupied by Coraline’s other neighbours – a couple of retired thesps (wittily supplied by Gillian Keith as Miss Spink and Frances McCafferty as Miss Forcible) and the elderly Lithuanian Mr Bobo (amiably personified by Harry Nicoll), with his orchestra of musical mice.

At the centre are the portrayals of Coraline and her parents – in both their positive and negative forms. Mary Bevan doesn’t quite convince as the 11-year-old of the title-role, nor are her physical mannerisms particularly childlike, but she’s vocally at the top of her game and expertly matched by Kitty Whately and Alexander Robin Baker, who play both sets of parents – the decent and the damned.

Turnage is one of the UK’s most admired composers, whose works include a genuine modern classic in the shape of his first opera, Greek (1988), based on Steven Berkoff’s East End Oedipus drama.

His new score is admirable in its refusal to settle for eager-to-please options, but while there’s no sense of writing down to an audience of kids there are places where something more striking is needed. In two halves, the show feels on the long side, and some of the plot in the second act seems more trouble than it’s worth.

Yet young Gaiman aficionados will love it for its broad fidelity to its source as well as its clever and at times magical staging.

With the Britten Sinfonia in the pit, Sian Edwards conducts a clean and confident performance of a piece that has a good deal going for it, especially in a production as skilful as this one.

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Mark-Anthony Turnage’s clever and magical opera based on Neil Gaiman’s children’s novella