REVIEW: Sammy and the Beanstalk, OperaUpClose (Oxford Playhouse)

We watch a lot of theatre for young audiences. Some of it is silly. Sometimes it deals with serious subjects in a sensitive manner. Ideally it contains something for the adults as well as the children. The best does all of the above. And on rare occasions it is so moving and memorable that it serves as a reminder of the importance of respecting children as a worthy audience in their own right, rather than the easily entertained audience of the future.

A lot of online theatre has focused on the theme of loneliness and isolation, but often in a very light-touch, quite fluffy way. Not so Sammy and the Beanstalk, an urban fairytale for ages 7+ which tackles the topic head on. This 30 minute play-with-songs is presented by OperaUpClose and draws inspiration from classic winter tales, both cosy and gothic, as well as opera, theatre and film. Written and directed by OperaUpClose’s Artistic Director Robin Norton Hale, it features music by award-winning singer, songwriter and composer Rosabella Gregory and is performed on a hand-drawn, life-size theatre set by designer Anna Bruder ( 

Eight year old Sammy (Abigail Kelly) and her Dad (Tom Stoddart) used to have lots of fun together, making up stories and mixing potions in their kitchen. But Dad has changed. Something’s scaring him and suddenly things aren’t so fun anymore. He doesn’t have the energy to play or cook or even eat. And he doesn’t want Sammy to play outside. It’s not safe out there. As Sammy ticks off the days until Christmas, which will see Mum return from looking after a relative, Dad becomes increasingly irritable and more withdrawn. Is there anything Sammy can do to help him be brave once more?

It’s a really gorgeous piece of work, which will almost certainly resonate for anyone who has struggled during the pandemic. We watch Dad change from a fun-loving, engaged parent to a shell of his former self, experiencing his turmoil as he acknowledges that he does not have the energy to be emotionally or even physically available for Sammy. We see the walls of the playful set, hand-drawn in Bruder’s distinctive style, physically close in as the strain of confining themselves to a small flat becomes too much. And we see Sammy increasingly having to fend for herself as Dad spends more and more time asleep. Dealing brilliantly with a difficult issue, it reminded both Mummy and Mrs Mummy of Need a Little Help, our standout children’s show of 2019 which deals with issues facing young carers.

It’s not all dark and there are playful moments, though there is a slightly spooky element to the storyline with the mysterious threat looming outside the flat. It’s also a nice introduction to opera without being overly long or intimidating. There is enough opera to give children a flavour but much of it is spoken word. Given that most theatre for children incorporates music or song of some kind, children may not even notice that it’s singing of a different kind. The munchkins (who are very used to musical theatre but have not really experienced opera before) were captivated.

We really enjoyed Sammy and the Beanstalk and would recommend it as a thought-provoking piece of theatre which will genuinely speak to both adults and children of the audience. As well as being an entertaining show, it could also prove to be a valuable means of starting a conversation with children about their fears and feelings, as well as a powerful reminder to many adults that they are not alone.

Sammy and the Beanstalk is available to stream from 19 December 2020 to 3 January 2021. Tickets cost £5 for an individual or £20 for a family ticket. We received a complimentary ticket from Oxford Playhouse in return for a review.