Prom 49: The Lost Words review – Beethoven to beatboxing as climate crisis set to music

Royal Albert Hall, London
Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris’s bestselling book inspired this ambitious family Prom that celebrated the natural world

In the two years since its publication, Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris’s The Lost Words has caught the imaginations of hundreds of thousands and shape-shifted into theatre, dance, a song cycle and a folk music project, and now, an ambitious family Prom that ranged from Beethoven to beatboxing and filled the Albert Hall with the sound of birdsong.

Macfarlane and Morris’s book was conceived as a “beautiful protest” against the depletion of the natural world; the lost words of the book’s title are 20 of the names for everyday nature – from acorn to otter, conker to bluebell, dropped from a children’s dictionary due to under-use. Macfarlane’s “spells” were the spine of this Proms programme, his witty poems set to music by James Burton, Alissa Firsova, folk ensemble Spell Songs, or spoken by illustrator Jackie Morris, as she – sitting at a table mid-stage – brought the very animals she hymned to life. (Live drawing – surely a Proms first?) Others were illuminated by dancing, beatboxing, even live action (actor Vincent Franklin was a splendidly peevish newt), interspersed with excerpts from familiar works celebrating nature – a tantalising few bars of Beethoven’s Pastoral symphony and “Storm” from Summer of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.

The Lost Words Prom at the Royal Albert Hall, London
Shape-shifter ... Indigo Griffiths (Diana, the guide) in The Lost Words. Photograph: Chris Christodoulou/BBC

With swathes of the Amazon burning and a summer in which temperatures have reached terrible new highs, the concert began in a starkly sombre mood. Jocelyn Pook’s You Need to Listen to Us foregrounds passages of Greta Thunberg’s impassioned speech – “We are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction” – with a gently lyrical instrumental and choral backing (the National Youth Choir of Great Britain and the Southbank Sinfonia under Jessica Cottis sensitive and detailed).

A guide, Diana (Indigo Griffiths) – “the seeker of the lost words, a shape shifter” – emerged from the arena, torch aloft, but was given little to do and often just added to the stage clutter; likewise an underused narrator (Janie Dee). Across 16 different musical numbers the tone lurched wildly – beatboxer Jason Singh’s Raven a thrilling but agonisingly brief shot of energy came hot on the heels of Kris Drever’s exquisite Scatterseed. An excerpt from Vaughan Williams’ Lark Ascending was given space to breathe and violinist Stephanie Childress seemed to draw the long musical phrases from the ether. But too much else felt rushed and unfocused in this huge venue, and many of its young audience were restless. This was an event easy to admire but difficult to love.

Available on BBC Sounds. The Proms continue until 14 September.


Imogen Tilden

The GuardianTramp

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