Here an arm, there a leg, this 16-limbed tangle of orange and leaf-green is Shaun's bizarre discovery on the otherwise grim beach near the forbidding, anonymous streets of his futuristic city. Air ships cruise in the colourless sky above the grey tower blocks. His parents' living room sports spotty wallpaper, but their world view is darkly pessimistic.
When Shaun shepherds The Thing to his home, his father rejects the stranger because it may carry germs and his mother regards the family as a sealed and closed unit. But Shaun hides The Thing in his bedroom, where the wallpaper shows endangered species and some of Nature's other weird and wonderful creations – the three-toed sloth, the armadillo. For make no mistake, The Thing is a living creature, just not one that we recognise.
Like The Tiger Who Came to Tea, The Lost Thing is about accepting the other, with clear messages for those in society who are hostile to strangers and diversity. And diversity is at the heart of this debut production of The Lost Thing by composer and lyricist James Maxwell, adapting for the stage Shaun Tan's much-loved book, first published in 2000.
A co-commission and co-production by the Royal Opera and Candoco Dance Company, The Lost Thing features music-making and dance by artists with and without physical disabilities, so extending the range of what is possible on stage. Shaun is played by the American-born dancer, now a Londoner, Joel Brown, whose wheelchair helps him keep up with the rangy Thing.
Brown proves to have an attractive, open singing voice, and Shaun's narrative is taken up too by the Greek chorus-like ensemble of five zoot-suited singers, who also act out the characters Shaun encounters on their quest for a safe haven for The Thing.
The Federal Department of Odds and Ends enjoys its work, in The Lost Thing. Photo: Stephen Wright
Cue languid friend Pete (counter-tenor Collin Shay), whose verdict 'Cool' is the highest praise, the dull parents (baritone Peter Braithwaite and soprano Victoria Oruwari), a ferocious official (soprano Melanie Pappenheim) and kindly janitor (mezzo-soprano Bethan Langford). While the piece builds slowly, the swinging up-tempo number 'Sweepus Underum Carpetae', that opens Act Two is a showstopper, with dancer Laura Patay adding extra zing.
When Shaun turns for help to the bureaucratic Federal Department of Odds and Ends he encounters a comical mountain of paperwork and obfuscation. The whole tale is wrapped in a reminiscence, Shaun swopping his rucksack for spectacles to switch instantly between youth and middle age.
The four dancers who make up The Thing worked with director and choreographer Ben Wright on its organic and shape-shifting movement. Costumes by Rike Zöllner pick up the bleached palette of Shaun's grey world, while the set and and vivid video back projections by Will Holt are faithful to Shaun Tan's magical book.
Maxwell's music mines the best of 20th-century light music genres and binds them with a luminous, incantatory thread. The six busy on-stage instrumentalists – strings, reeds, piano and percussion, directed by Timothy Burke – create a world of colours. For the grey landscape finally gives way to something brighter in a coup de theâtre with meaning for the whole planet.
The Lost Thing is a kind, thought-provoking, and affecting family show that ignores the artificial lines between dance, opera and different abilities. This Christmas it tells in a new way the story of a helpless stranger in need of a home.
The Lost Thing is sung in English, with English surtitles. Matinees on 15 Dec and 4 Jan are relaxed performances; performances on 19 Dec and 21 Dec (matinee) are interpreted into British Sign Language; an audio-described performance with touch tour is on 29 Dec (matinee)
|What||The Lost Thing, Royal Opera House, Linbury Theatre review|
|Where||Royal Opera House, Bow Street, Covent Garden, London, WC2E 9DD | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Covent Garden (underground)|
07 Dec 19 – 04 Jan 20, 28 performances, at 2:15PM and 7:15PM on most days
|Website||Click here for more information and booking|