Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Shackleton's Cat

Shackleton's Cat - ETO - photo Robert Workman
Starring role - the cat, with some of his supporting cast
Shackleton's Cat - photo Robert Workman
Russell Hepplewhite Shackleton's Cat; director Time Yealland; English Touring Opera at Dulwich College
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on May 5 2015
Star rating: 4.0

A rattling good drama in this opera for young people about Shackleton's voyage

For its latest opera aimed at young people and families, English Touring Opera (ETO) has produced Shackleton's Cat, coinciding with the centenary of Sir Ernest Shackleton's amazing voyage across Antartica. The opera was created by composer Russell Hepplewhite, writer/director Tim Yealland and designer Jude Munden, the team responsible for ETO's two previous works for children, Laika the Spacedog (see my review) and Borkha, the Goose with no feathers (see my review). Designed for children aged 7 to 11, the production of Shackleton's Cat is being toured by ETO alongside its other Spring operas, and I caught up with the work at Dulwich College on Tuesday 15 May, the first of four performances there to both pupils from Dulwich College and from other Lambeth schools. In the great hall of the college a cast of five, Michael Butchard, Andrew Glover, Ashley Mercer, Jan Capinski, Dafydd Hall Williams performed the piece, with an instrumental ensemble directed from the keyboard by James Henshaw.

In Jude Munden's imaginative designs, this is very much opera in a box as the sets are all based round a self contained structure which can be packed up and transported easily. Combining projections, puppets and simple tricks with sheets of material, the production conjures up the world of Sir Ernest Shackleton's journey, including the ship Endurance being trapped and crushed in the ice, a series of heroic journeys and the final rescue with no loss of life.

Not an obvious story for a children's opera, but Tim Yealland's text incorporated Mrs Chippy te real life carpenter's cat which travelled with the men and which helped provide a way into the drama for the children. Mrs Chippy was played by a vivid puppet, manipulated by the cast, and other elements such as the ship voyage and the trek across the ice used a lively mix of live actoin and models.

Shackleton's Cat - ETO - photo Robert Workman
The sea voyage - Jude Munden's model
Shackleton's Cat - photo Robert Workman
The music was provided by a band of three, percussion, horn and keyboards, but Russell Hepplewhite's scoring also included a theremin (played by the horn player) and a specially made wind machine. The music wonderfully evoked the landscapes and the drama without ever seeming to talk down to the children. And the vocal lines were singer friendly but similarly challenging, even the songs which the children were encouraged to join in. Teachers are sent a teachers' pack and CD, with full words and music, and when I attended all joined in lustily with the songs.

The cast of five (plus two stage crew) were hard working, singing, narrating, leading the children in activities such as struggling out of the ice, and even handling a Q&A afterwards. Though there was some doubling of characters (the piece starts in the present day), all successfully created strongly identifiable persona's with Andrew Glover as the main focus as the personable and approachable McNish, the carpenter with the cat, Dafydd Hall Williams as Blackborow the young stow away and Ashley Mercer as the very upright Shackleton (who hated the cat, and seemingly couldn't wait to have it put down), plus Michael Butchard as Wild and Crean and Jan Capinski as Worsley. Dafydd Hall Williams is an ETO staff director (acting as assistant director on this and other operas in the season), and the others are all performing in the rest of the season too.

Shackleton's Cat - ETO - photo Robert Workman
The toe amputation scene
Shackleton's Cat - photo Robert Workman
The plot does not, perhaps, have quite the narrative drive of the previous two operas. But there were some rattling good moments of drama as well as realistic details designed to appeal to children such as digestive problems, farting and icicles in beards. And the more dramatic moments were operatic too, this wasn't an opera masquerading as a play; though spoken narrative and melodrama was used, it was music which drove the drama. And I don't think I ever imagined seeing an operatic version of someone getting their toes amputated because of frost bite!

The piece keys into many necessary curriculum activities, and the school activity pack expands on these. But it is also a rattling good piece of music theatre and hopefully will be catching the imagination of the 5,000 school children seeing it this spring. ETO is doing 38 performances of the opera this spring, and will be finishing with a group of public performances at the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge (book online at the ETO website). The company is rightly proud of its education work, and in fact they do two children's operas annually and are also touring Waxwings for young people with special needs.

See the English Touring Opera website for full details.
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