The Lost Thing review – opera/dance translation loses picture-book verve

Linbury theatre, London
Disabled and non-disabled performers collaborate in this welcome but slow adaptation of Shaun Tan’s story about a boy who befriends a strange creature

The point about The Lost Thing is that it’s uncategorisable – which goes for this new stage work as much as the creature at the centre of its story. It’s an opera, or a musical, or a dance work harnessing the talents of the disabled and non-disabled dancers of Candoco and a small ensemble of similarly various musicians, in tandem with the Royal Opera. The source is Shaun Tan’s picture book about a boy who finds and looks after a strange creature – a timely choice for a family show, given that it is on some primary schools’ curriculum.

But this welcome collaboration deserves something tighter and more dynamic than this version of Tan’s story. The video backdrop, by designer Will Holt and animator Douglas O’Connell, shares the ochre palette of Tan’s drawings but doesn’t directly reference them. Holt’s cityscape is more right-angled, more dystopian, and while Tan’s original Thing is like the love child of a giant crustacean and Henry the Hoover, here it is mossy green with orange-brown legs. It’s conjured up by between two and four dancers who intertwine to make something that breathes and writhes.

‘Something that breathes and writhes’ ... The Lost Thing by Jules Maxwell
‘Something that breathes and writhes’ ... The Lost Thing by Jules Maxwell. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

And so, perhaps more than being about kindness and acceptance, this becomes a work about taking care of nature before it’s lost. You can’t argue with the message, but it’s hardly a surprise that some of the text, which is mostly taken by composer Jules Maxwell straight from Tan’s book, doesn’t seem to fit. If you were going to write this story from scratch, you wouldn’t do it like this.

Ben Wright’s staging tells the confused story gently, and as clearly as it can. The cast, all amplified, mixes opera and musical theatre voices, with Joel Brown engaging as Shaun, the central figure. Conducted by Timothy Burke, Maxwell’s score, full of cycles and repetitions, perks up with the little arias for Victoria Oruwari and Bethan Langford, and there’s a nice bossanova about the hell of filling in forms, but too much of it is static and slow, content to accompany the narration when it could be telling the story.

• At the Linbury theatre, London, until 4 January.


Erica Jeal

The GuardianTramp

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