The Shops, Linbury Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture

Whether it's hats, or stamps, or cars, or scalps, collecting is something all of us do: as the programme to The Shops pertinently observes, this perennial human activity has drawn great intellects to consider it.

Freud, whose particular thing was antique figures, branded the collector as a Don Juan making his conquests; no accident, it seems, that in Mozart's opera Leporello catalogues Don Juan's amorous conquests in the manner of a curator. One of the scenes in Edward Rushton's comic opera echoes this point nicely, with the protagonist's stolen hoard turned into an outraged litany by his courtroom accuser.

Collecting is not necessarily synonymous with shopping – seashells are just as collectable as shoes – but that is the link that has fired Rushton's librettist Dagny Gioulami. On a visit to London from her Zurich base, she was transfixed by the obsessive way contemporary Brits were driven to shop. But it's stamps that fire her hero, to the point where stealing fuels his life. He sings in ecstatic praise of his captive pieces of paper, which for him are willing victims: "They look at me, sometimes they call me." Gioulami and her husband Rushton aim to create the first full-on operatic paean to consumerism.

While Christoph (Darren Abrahams) steals stamps, his girlfriend Francesca (Anna Dennis) buys clothes; the moment she gets home, she hates them and has to go out for more. Supported by four other singers who each play a variety of roles, these excellent performers take us from museum to shop to court to Shopaholics Anonymous to a psychiatrist's consulting room, at a spanking pace. Soutra Gilmour's ingenious designs are suitably chic, consisting of a row of giant shopping bags which are constantly moving. The staging is deft, and fun to watch.

But though this piece sounds at first like a lost work by a Thirties Czech modernist, the music proves an uneasy hybrid: the sounds from the pit – a combination of clarinets, strings, and percussion – are seductive, but the vocal language is too strenuously experimental to let the ear ever settle. Moreover, the "plot" is dizzyingly serpentine, while the prevailing archness defies emotional engagement. Without these heroic performances and the cleverness of John Fulljames's production, the work itself would have been profoundly irritating.

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