Not being Ukrainian or Polish, I couldn’t confidently say if the accents are accurate in Guy Harries’s opera, but they are, at least, consistent in this enjoyable romp. The winner of OperaUpClose’s Flourish writing competition, Harries also proves himself a versatile musician, playing an assortment of flutes and melodica (a small keyboard that is blown into), with musical director Nicola Rose on piano.
Adapted from Marina Lewycka’s novel by librettist Ace McCarron, ‘Two Caravans’ is an ambitious charge through the byways of England, following the adventures of migrant workers as they are sexually and financially exploited and yet hold on to a sense of self and their goals.
Director Vincent Van Den Elshout makes the best of the small space with minimal staging – a rectangle of Astroturf, a table and a couple of small benches – from which are improvised a strawberry farm, an old people’s home, a telephone box, three cars and the two accommodating vehicles of the title.
Proceedings open with Leapish, a Kent strawberry farmer engaged in joyless congress with his voluptuous supervisor, the bored and sneering Yola (Rosie Middleton). She detects ‘a great disturbance in the force of sexual harmony in our small community’ with the arrival of Irina from Kiev. Looking for work, Irina has met Ukrainian wise guy Vulk, who takes her passport and tries to kidnap her, only to be rescued by Andriy, an admirer, and fellow Ukrainian strawberry-picker from the less urbane Donbas, who dreams of Sheffield. The other main character is Emanuel from Malawi (Peter Braithwaite), who is devoutly religious and has come looking for his sister. He also plays a variety of other characters, including, Farmer Leapish’s jealous wife, Wendy; and Yateka, a nurse from Zambia.
In fact, the five singers all play such a variety of characters, with minimal changes of appearance, that it is hard to keep track of what is going on. Reading the libretto afterwards, much falls into place, but too many specific events, such as a car having broken down, are impossible to convey visually with just a table. The result is a zany but fun romantic comedy, with a poignant message about how we treat migrant workers. However, with no central story holding the foreground, we are left with a mélange of side stories peopled by characters who don’t seem to be growing any wiser from their experiences.
Musically, Harries has created a breezy score for piano and flute, which appears to be variations on a Ukrainian folk theme. The flute, however, imposes a pastoral calm over everything and the score – which was tightly played by the duo – consists of the fast comedy number and the slow poignant one. With a cast of fine singers (Sylvie Gallant’s clear bright soprano stands out), it is a shame that there are no duets and very little ensemble singing, which is very good on the rare occasions it does appear. Jonathan Lennie