“On time and on budget.” This was a phrase that proved inescapable as the Young Vic reopened after a two year closure for essential refurbishment. It’s not something you hear said that often these days, so you could see why it rapidly became the evening’s mantra.
Following a champagne reception – where speeches were given by artistic director David Lan as well as by Christopher Frayling, chairman of the arts council, that singled out the architects responsible for the project and the Young Vic’s patron Jude Law for special thanks – we were ushered in to the main auditorium for the inaugural performance. Inside, though the theatre has grown in height and acquired that all important non-leaky roof, the layout remained pleasantly familiar, with the bench seating and traverse stage left pretty much as they were. The Young Vic was only ever intended as a temporary performance site, but it has come to be one of London’s most exciting spaces and means a lot to people.
As a statement of intent, the opening production, takes some beating. With words by Lan and Jonathan Dove, Tobias and the Angel is a community opera, an ultimately uplifting tale that encapsulates everything the theatre stands, for being as ambitious as it is accessible, and featuring a huge cast and choir drawn from the local community.
The modern-dress piece describes Tobias’ (Darren Abrahams) journey to find a cure for his blind father, and the white-clad stranger (James Laing) who guides him. When he reaches the village of Ecbatana, his uncle Raguel tries to marry him off to his cousin Sarah (Karina Lucas), a woman who is loved by an evil spirit and, as a result, whose previous seven husband haven’t lived longer than their wedding nights.
The professional singers merge seamlessly with the community choir and, though it takes a while to warm up, there are some lovely moments where the narrow stage (with a set by Alexander Lowde that evokes many conflict-hit and poverty stricken corners of the globe) seems so awash with people it feels like they’ve injected a little bit of carnival into the place. And the groups of children who occasionally grace the stage, playing flocks of birds (or piloting giant, green paper- mache fish) are so infectious in their energy, you can’t help getting caught up in things.
Though the story is neatly condensed in the programme notes, it’s so expertly told that no previous knowledge is necessary to get to grips with what is happening. This is indicative of the inclusive aspect that permeates everything the theatre is involved in, and they remain committed to giving away a percentage of the seats for each performance to people who live in the area. Their 2006/07 programme includes new work by Dennis Kelly and Debbie Tucker Green, as well as a stage adaptation of DBC Pierre’s Booker winning Vernon God Little by Rufus Norris. They’ve set themselves very high standards with this opening show.