Ulla’s Odyssey

Review by Flossie Waite
An OperaUpClose production
Kings Place
Showing until 22nd November
For ages 7+

OperaUpClose is navigating tricky waters. Their latest offering for ages 7+, Ulla’s Odyssey, combines opera and ancient Greek epic poetry: two things young audiences might not be familiar with. Inspired by Homer’s great work, it tells the tale of Ulla, a 14-year-old girl, and her record-breaking attempt at a solo round-the-world voyage. The Odyssey would originally have been heard rather than read, performed by poets or singers to ancient audiences; this production offers a bit of both, using music and spoken words to keep the story flowing and everyone on board.

Ulla (Sarah Minns) is every bit as determined, ambitious and, at times, arrogant as the great Odysseus, so she is in the perfect position to defeat similar hurdles to those he faced. Similar, but not the same: throughout, characters and elements of the original story are intelligently reimagined. When her boat, the Homer, stalls on a windless ocean, Ulla reluctantly approaches the goddess of the sea: “Ugh! I hate asking permission from grown ups.” The Cyclops becomes ‘Cy-Ops’, a surveillance system with an attitude problem but a fantastic costume – one hand is replaced with a torch that looks like a giant blinking eye. Scylla is Sylla, the beautiful but dangerously hungry sea monster, who sings through gritted teeth of her love for cat flesh. Garibdis (formerly known as Charybdis) is a whirlpool made up of the flotsam and jetsam discarded by humans but polluting the seas, his siren-like cries disturbingly muffled by a gas-mask face.

It’s not all plain sailing. Ulla is both bolshy teenager and juvenile child: one minute she is convincing Cy-Ops she is Justin Bieber, the next telling him her name is “underwear”, then “picking your nose.” Her behaviour changes to appeal to the different ages in the audience, but this makes her unconvincing as a young person. The exchange with Cy-Ops is rare as they speak directly to each other and move across the stage freely. Ulla is more often constrained to her boat, which is so small that most of her foes are forced to appear behind her; they each react to what the other is saying without actually looking at them, minimising the dramatic impact. In this story about a journey, movement is very limited.

That said, the production reaches emotional depths – we see Ulla really struggling, and her parents appear in her dreams, pleading with her both to win and to come home; the music in these moments is especially haunting. When Ulla’s Odyssey is less self-conscious about its child audience, it is home and dry.

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