It has become a cliché to say that the freshest, most original seasonal shows emanate from the Young Vic, but the boring thing about this cliché is that it is incontrovertibly true. The new box of delights is a through-sung opera with music by Jonathan Dove and lyrics by Alasdair Middleton based on ancient Romanian and Norwegian folk tales with their origins in the myth of Cupid and Psyche.
Put like that, The Enchanted Pig may sound off-putting. It is the very opposite: simple to follow, delightful to behold and easy on the ear, the show re-casts the Beauty and the Beast fable in the story of a beautiful princess who is ordered by Fate to marry “a fat pig from the North” (no, he’s nothing like Wayne Rooney) and discovers her true love.
Flora, like Cordelia in King Lear, is the youngest of three daughters whose father, King Hildebrand is about to go to war. He forbids them to enter a locked room; naturally, they do so and discover their destinies. Much of the excitement in Dove’s score comes from the girls’ mixture of anticipation and fear, tinged with romantic naughtiness. They wear mini-skirts and cream cone hairstyles. They all embark on a journey from the palace to the pigsty and the darkest corners of the universe.
When Flora meets her pig, he promptly disappears after ordering her to wear out three iron pairs of shoes as she searches the world for him. So the mood of a pantomime is mixed with a classic quest, and John Fulljames’s production takes us through countryside, night skies, palaces, muddy fields, and the house of the North Wind, where the resident married couple have a duet: “I love the curlers in her hair/I love his filthy underwear/I love the way he never knows/When he’s got bogies up his nose.”
Before arriving at the slaves’ kitchen where the wedding is prepared, Flora encounters the snow geese, the moon and the clouds, as the world comes alive in readiness for the magical day. Best of all, perhaps, is the way quite sophisticated music – echoes abound of Sondheim and Janacek - is made to sound naturally sensual in the singing of a really top notch cast, such a marked contrast with the amateurish singing in the RSC’s new Merry Wives musical at Stratford-upon-Avon.
John Rawnsley is a rubicund, lyrical King, while Glyndebourne and Covent Garden veteran Nuala Willis doubles as a book of Fate and Mrs North Wind. Rodney Clarke is the king turned prince, with a gorgeous snout, fleshy ears and a penchant for rolling in mud that commends him, of course, to every child in the audience. They all sing beautifully, as do Mab and Dot (Kate Chapman and Akiya Henry), Flora’s sisters. Flora herself is enchantingly played and sung by Caryl Hughes (sharing the role with Anna Dennis), and the musical supervision is by Stuart Stratford.
The Young Vic is a perfect auditorium for such a show, where the small band (including harp and trombone) sits easily within Dick Bird’s fluid, non-picturesque design and the expert lighting of Paul Anderson. This really is a treat for all the family and a sensible alternative, if you want one, to the traditional pantomime.