Strawberry fields forever: OperaUpClose’s Two Caravans at the King’s Head Theatre

Based on Marina Lewycka‘s 2007 novel of the same name, Two Caravans takes us into the rough, sad but somehow amusing world of Ukrainian strawberry-pickers in Kent, and reflects back some uncomfortable home truths at a home-grown audience. Buzzing with energy, a lively cast offer laughs, thrills, spills… and enough strawberries to make you sick of the sight of them.


Our eponymous caravans are parked on a strawberry farm in Kent. One is for men – the other is for women. An adventure begins which gradually resolves itself into a love story, as the sweet but almost brainlessly guileless Irina (Sylvie Gallant) is rescued time and again by the chunky, grumpy, and evermore infatuated Andriy (Adam Torrance). On our way, we learn that it’s hard to run from the police when towing a caravan with an ancient Land Rover; that according to Tolstoy, a man and his wife should always share their interests; that some Ukrainians thought the Orange Revolution was a waste of time; and that “nurses from Malawi / All know each other very well.” There is humour, there is pathos, there is tension and hilarity, there’s a little bit of violence, and there is a lot of very dispiriting sex, mainly communicated by dead-eyed, fully clothed bouncing. What this production lacks in subtlety, however, it makes up for in social punch, aiming squarely at the solar plexus of middle-class guilt. Have you ever wondered, as you piled the punnets into your basket in Tesco, who picked those luscious strawberries, or what sort of life they had?

There were several things I liked in this fun little opera, written by composer Guy Harries and librettist Ace McCarron. Emanuel (Peter Brathwaite), probably the most heartbreaking character of all, writes letters to his sister which he “sends” as paper planes across the stage: fragile and impractical, they seem, like Emanuel himself, the futile product of a kinder, earlier age, at odds with modern greed. The use of silhouette is another delight. The immigrants’ disgust at the people they meet in England is chastening for us all: in an almost unbearably moving scene, the homeless and destitute Irina, on the run from Vulk (a punchy and inventive Alistair Sutherland), the gangster who is trying to turn her into a prostitute, phones her mother in Ukraine to pretend the people she has met are kind and nice, the work is decent, and the money is good. Irina’s every lie hits us harder and harder.  Later in the story, a brief afternoon of respite in a prosperous English home (“We have five bathrooms”, sings Rosie Middleton, whose acting and adaptability impressed throughout) seems like a dream which will not come true; the simple gifts of hot water, warm towels and tea suddenly seem as alien and extraordinary as frankincense and myrhh.  I have never seen a more moving depiction of how one society’s selfishness oppresses others.

But I’m afraid, despite all the infectious enthusiasm and commitment from this versatile and energetic cast, who sing with gusto, Two Caravans has several problems. One is structural: characters do not ever seem to learn from their experiences. This was inherited from the original novel, but on an opera stage, the lack of character development feels like we’re driving with the handbrake on.  There’s a libretto problem: it’s lumpen at times, awkward at others, gauche and coarse throughout – and riddled with a range of gimmicky accents (Ukrainian, pseudo-RP, Northern) which patronise the audience, make extra work for the cast, and distract the ear without adding materially to the sense. Normally I like accents on stage, but it’s obvious who’s who here: I would much rather have the whole thing in Ukrainian (with some decent surtitles) than this debacle. And finally, and most importantly, there’s a musical problem. Guy Harries has taken inspiration from Ukrainian folk music, which was sensible and appropriate, but seemingly only from two or three pieces: the music, too often, feels flat and repetitive, and the very restricted palette of piano, flute and – was it an accordion? – doesn’t give much breadth, depth or variety. And yet the only moment when the music really came to life was Andriy’s Ukrainian love song, which was stunning, and is not mentioned in the programme.

On the subject of which: it is lovely to be handed a copy of any libretto, but I need to vent one grumpy critical aside: apart from its errors (wrong date of performance, strange use of tense in the introduction, typos in the libretto itself), the programme manages to credit its graphic designer, but not the pianist! I think priorities at OperaUpClose may have gone a little awry…

OperaUpClose were understandably excited by the first winner of their Flourish competition, an annual competition to find (and put on) a new chamber opera. I echo the sentiment; I applaud the idea. But they seemed to claim Flourish, and Flourish solely, as the face of modern British opera of the future. I find this a bit much. While Two Caravans hits hard, and has some nice moments, it is not the most exciting thing I have seen this year; not by a long chalk. Both Tête à Tête and Grimeborn this summer were bursting with beautiful, skilful, imaginative new operas and operettas, some so new they’re still unfinished, others powerfully self-assured en début; and all considerably more polished than this. So, if you see Two Caravans, there’s plenty to provoke, and stuff to enjoy; but please be aware that more, much more, is out there waiting to be discovered.

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