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Tim Winter

Review: CORALINE The Royal Opera House at the Barbican

Coraline Neil Gaiman's massively popular children's story 'Coraline' has already made it from the page to the big screen and now finds itself on the Barbican stage as an opera for family audiences, commissioned by The Royal Opera House, with music by the one-time 'bad boy' of British contemporary music, Mark-Anthony Turnage, and with a great libretto by playwright Rory Mullarkey.

It's a long way from Turnage's explosive, expletive-ridden, first opera 'Greek' (1988) based on Steven Berkoff's play but it still explores the dark side of human nature, this time with a smile and magic tricks.

Coraline is a plucky tween (here sung with child-like clarity by Robyn Allegra Parton), stuck in the new flat she and her parents have just moved into. Her belongings are still in boxes, it's raining and she's bored. Her father is busy inventing a waste disposal machine and making revolting soups, while her mum is distracted, her hands full, trying to create a new home for them all.

Feeling ignored, she goes off to meet the other residents in the block; an eccentric Lithuanian conductor of a Mouse Orchestra, Mr.Bobo (tremulously characterised by Harry Nicoll) and two elderly, out-of-work thespians ("actresses never retire!"), a great comic turn by Gillian Keith and Frances McCafferty. Not so funny is the danger they read  in Coraline's tea leaves.

Back in her room and undeterred by the tea leaves or some warning ghostly voices, she crawls through a little door she's found behind the boxes and, Alice-like, finds herself in a mirror-image of her new surroundings. She is greeted by her "Other Mother" and "Other Father", identical to her own parents except they have big buttons where their eyes should be.  Then things begin to get strange.

Turnage's music has always mixed spikey modernism with other, usually jazz-inspired sounds. Here it's more Bernstein than be-bop but he doesn't condescend to his target audience and, as usual, his orchestration is superb. Sian Edwards, conducting the excellent Britten Sinfonia, has a real understanding of this composer's work and teases out all the beauty and the beast in the score. The vocal writing isn't spectacular, and you won't come out humming the tunes but you'll catch every word.

Set design by Giles Cadle is a delight, intelligent use of the stage revolve moves the action seamlessly to and from the "Other World", there are party tricks and a creepy disembodied hand and Aleta Collins' direction moves with lightening speed from comedy to menace, panto to horror and back. The younger members of the audience seemed to enjoy it, the older ones had a good time too.