Peter Hobday as the Penguin and Victoria Simmonds as the Boy in The Way Back Home (ENO/Young Viic)
Peter Hobday as the Penguin and Victoria Simmonds as the Boy in The Way Back Home (ENO/Young Vic)
© Stephen Cummiskey

It's always a worry when opera's bookish brainboxes target the early-years market, because too many new works for the very young either forget to entertain or else try too hard to be child-friendly. Joanna Lee's new ENO-Young Vic commission somehow contrives to do both simultaneously, and were it not for Katie Mitchell's humdinger of a staging and a co-production deal with the Opéra National de Paris and The Royal Swedish Opera it would be a curio at best.

Based on a hugely popular book by Oliver Jeffers, The Way Back Home tells of a Boy (Victoria Simmonds) who finds an aeroplane in his wardrobe, as you do, and uses it to fly to the Moon. Don't try this at home, children. There's a penguin in the house and a Martian on the Moon, so it's a regular slice of suburban life.

Let me say at once that the designs by Vicki Mortimer and Molly Einchcomb are an utter joy. Just as Dolly Parton once opined that it cost a fortune to look this cheap, so I can scarcely imagine the know-how it must have taken to bring elementary picture-book images to such solid and witty life. There are felicities at every turn: hidden windows, a nifty cartoon TV and a seven-strong orchestra that's dressed as an extension of the scenery. And if embroidering each shirt with the name of the player's instrument seems a tad Highgate Mums (‘never miss a learning opportunity'), at least it raises a smile.

Had Lee and her librettist Rory Mullarkey cut back on the verbiage and introduced a spot of peril, they might have been on to a winner. It's a bright, buoyant show and the score, though defiantly uncatchy, is texturally pleasant, but there's too much trained-voice singing and not nearly enough action, and the static Boy-Martian duologues between Simmonds and the bizarrely becostumed Aoife O'Sullivan hang like limp rags on a rail. Indeed, even though the whole thing is directed with ladlefuls of affection and spirit by the often-dour Mitchell it actually feels longer than its 45-minute running time.

Nevertheless, the silent contributions of Peter Hobday as the pugilistic penguin always catch the eye, and we get a brief sense of what's missing elsewhere when Alexander Robin Baker exchanges his costume as one of four narrators-cum-noise-makers – itself a neat idea – for that of a larger-than-life postman.

Add the odd in-joke (‘Live from Glyndebourne' as zap-bait) and obligatory mum-and-dad moments such as nods to Michael Jackson's Thriller and, bizarrely, Hannibal Lecter's partiality to pan-fried human brain tissue, and there's colour aplenty in Mullarkey and Lee's confection. It's the soft centre that bothers me.