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The Girl on the Train

Missed Connection

The Girl on the Train

by Paula Hawkins, adapted by Rachel Wagstaff and Duncan Abel

Simon Friend in association with Amblin Entertainment at Richmond Theatre until 16th February, then tour continues until 23rd November

A review by Matthew Grierson

For a thriller, The Girl on the Train is rarely thrilling. In fact, it seems to have decided it is a comedy, so successful it is in generating laughs from the Richmond Theatre audience. There is scarcely a situation in the play that does not merit a titter, from the awkward encounters between Rachel, ex-husband Tom, new wife Anna and neighbour Scott, to Rachel’s repeated, blatant denial of her alcoholism. Rather than ratcheting up the tension or offering a bleak comment on it, humour remains the predominant mode of a play whose plot nonetheless hinges on the disappearance (spoiler: murder) of Scott’s wife Megan.

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This makes it all the more difficult to tell a serious, affecting story, and so the production largely does not choose to do so. Instead, it makes a virtue of staging it, never resorting to performance and direction when it can mount a stage effect. We can tell Rachel’s unfortunate condition because her kitchen is littered with a neat row of empties and artfully arranged bin-bags, as though set designer James Cotterill had been given the note ‘alcoholic’ and responded artfully but with little reference to reality. So genteel is the squalor that the number of references to Waitrose made me wonder whether the supermarket was actually paying the production to take away carrier bags rather than charging for them.

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As a consequence of the production-led storytelling, neither star Samantha Womack as Rachel nor most of the supporting cast are called upon to give convincing performances, simply do what is necessary to advance the plot. We are to believe that Rachel has not only been a regular commuter, but that she has persisted in her daily journey simply to observe Scott and Megan through the window of the train as it stops at a signal. Certainly, the presentation of this is very effective – a combination of projection and live action – but in order to establish that it has been Rachel’s routine she needs to explain as much in the dialogue. Show and tell may work in the classroom, but on stage? Please.

GirlTrain8The narrative depends on a sense of routine that, however it is established in prose (I confess I’ve not read Paula Hawkins’ novel, on which this is based), is not easily dramatised. Likewise, whatever the rationale for Rachel fantasising that Scott and Megan are actually called ‘Jason’ and ‘Jess’ in the book, it’s just an unnecessary complication on stage, particularly as we are introduced to them by their real names before those that the first Mrs Watson imagines.

Further stage effects are all we get to cement any sense of Rachel being an alcoholic, too. Womack’s performance never convinces in this respect; indeed, she never convinces as a character, because no insight is offered into why she chooses to involve herself in the mystery. Rather than Megan, it is she who is the absence from this play, a black hole around which the action orbits. If we’re in danger of missing the heavy hint of this given in Megan’s painting, Rachel’s alcoholism is most tellingly conveyed by the scene in which she returns home and traces the motif from the artwork on her window. Impressively, this spirals out into an audio-visual effect that giddies both her and the audience. She passes out in the floor and then it is the next day, as helpfully flagged by the Sherlock-style caption ‘Wednesday’ on the wall above her sink. Under the spell of sexy modern TV shows, the action hastens along.

GirlTrain4I feel I’m always banging on about the rhythm of a piece in my reviews (what can I say, I’m a trained poet and that training has to come in use somewhere), and if anything director Anthony Banks gets that rhythm exactly right. It observes a timetable in a manner that South Western Railways could only envy; but in being so punctual, we the audience are left unaffected because the production becomes more concerned with hitting its beats rather than hinting at character. There is more choreography than chemistry, for instance, in the love scene that suddenly begins between Rachel and Scott (Oliver Farnworth, who himself seems overly keen to get his dialogue spoken and done with), or in the upstage scene in which Megan exchanges possible paramours in flashback.

The play is committed to such a perfunctory tone. Pushed another way, it could become an arch, traditional thriller that simply happens to be set in the present day, spiced up with judicious use of the f-word; but even being generous to this piece one could not call it overacted. Or, it could have been a taut psychological study, in which even at the close we are never certain of Rachel’s story. Is she an alcoholic or a fantasist? Or both? As it is we do end up finding out, but crucially we don’t care – this is a fast service, content on letting us board but barely stopping till the terminus.

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GirlTrain3How welcome, then, is John Dougall as Inspector Gaskill for pitching his performance perfectly for all eventualities. The dour Scottish copper is the most sympathetic person in the piece, either a pastiche of a careworn copper, or a policeman playing up to a pastiche knowing that this is what is expected of him. He also seems to be the only professional in the play worthy of the epithet. Naeem Hayat’s therapist Kamal is by contrast all detachment and questions until the script wants us to suspect him, at which he becomes sarky and judgemental about Rachel’s habits and clams up about his relationship with Megan. I’d have him struck off, save that one of the show’s only true human moments occurs when Megan tells him, and the audience, her backstory – kudos to Kirsty Oswald for managing to inject a genuine moment of tragic drama into proceedings.

GirlTrain14So what might at first seem a passable evening’s entertainment, rattling past at the speed of a 125, in retrospect unravels as quickly as Tom (Adam Jackson-Smith)’s volte-face and the subsequently rushed trackside denouement. At the end, we are left with a pat epilogue in which two of the principals offer the equivalent of the conclusion to a school essay, summarising the preceding two hours without convincing us that they feel anything new as a result. The Girl on the Train? I think I’ll take the bus.

Matthew Grierson
February 2019

Photography by Manuel Harlan

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Fury

Furious Realism

Fury

by Phoebe Eclair-Powell

Nicole Charles and Company, Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Milton Court Theatre, Barbican until 16th February

Review by Isobel Rogers

Fury is a contemporary tale by Phoebe Eclair-Powell (winner of the Soho Theatre Young Writer’s Award) based on Euripides’ Medea. Director Nicole Charles’ production is boldly 2019. Three narrators tell the story of Samantha: a stressed single mum living on a Peckham council estate. She’s a powerless figure in a vest top, hair scrunchie and spray-on jeans, inhabiting a city which is increasingly moneyed and unforgiving. She’s weighed down by the modern female prison sentence of two children and a cleaning job she can barely hold on to.

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Lydia Fleming as Sam is arresting, but the character is so archetypal that she’s almost blank: she could be any one of countless unlucky women, ‘anywhere between 17 and 35’. She meets Tom, a comparatively-privileged Masters student with gelled hair and a preppy polo shirt. His intentions for Sam head increasingly wayward and sadistic. He pays her to do his chores and more. Joseph Potter’s eyes sparkle as Tom realises his upper hand in their uneven relationship. She needs him to pay her in cash.

The night they meet, they dance together on the top of designer Charlie Cridlan’s silver framed set. Its starkness represents this harsh, unbending city: a place full of skyscrapers. The structure needs to be half a metre larger in scale to avoid play-acting connotations. Sam’s place in this world is signalled with yellow marigolds pinned onto the frame.

Our narrators manipulate three heavy grey blocks to create Sam’s landscape as it morphs into the seaside and back again. Tom and Sam are intent on adventures away from their city sprawl. They kiss at Nunhead Reservoir. The interplay between them is sorrowfully fascinating: a believable downward spiral of cruel manipulation, acted with skill.

Sam’s children are two shining balls of fairy lights, disembodied but always there. A large handheld spotlight is employed in tender moments of exposition, bringing the seriousness of Sam’s fate to our attention.

The narrators (Brandon Ashford, Isabella Brownson and Kristina Tonteri-Young) are slick and omniscient, uniting as a batch of orderly social workers come to check up on Sam’s violent outbursts. They become lofty commentators on her downfall – singing angelically in harmony – instead of her allies, as I think the script intends. Confident and seemingly a class above the story, they are removed from the plot; their cameos as real friends in Sam’s life are difficult to relate to and stunt the storytelling.

A short time before the end, the performance is curtailed by a stage manager: Fleming is streaming blood from her face. She has hit her head on the silver frame during a tussle (I heard a sharp clunk). I hope that Sam finds enough fury to fight back her oppressors: a triumphant ending is needed.

Isobel Rogers
February 2019

Photography courtesy of Guildhall School of Music and Drama

 

Rutherford and Son

Master of Northern Melodramas

Rutherford and Son

by Githa Sowerby

Questors Theatre at the Judi Dench Playhouse, Ealing until 16th February

Review by Viola Selby

Through Sowerby’s unsentimental writing of Rutherford and Son, made real by the excellent direction of Simon Roberts and the period perfect costumes designed by Nichola Thomas, the audience is plunged through time to an industrialised Northern English family living room, where the whole play takes place. This living room has been creatively designed by Bron Blake and lighting designer Chris Newall to appear and feel wonderfully warm and welcoming, with the continued hanging smoke of an industrial town.

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However, once into the story, having everything happen in this small space heightens the feeling of claustrophobia which each family member feels whilst under their father’s rule. And what control the father has! David Sellar is not only master of the house but also master of the stage as he manages to brilliantly depict a man whose sole focus is his business and family name, no matter the cost. Through tense silences, fervent debates, groans and moans made hilarious by the brilliant Despina Sellar as Rutherford’s ever-complaining sister Anne, and malicious monologues, passionately performed by an extremely creative cast, the audience are sent on an emotional rollercoaster of dramas, all of which are made even more realistic and relatable due to the personal approach each actor has taken in understanding their character.

Rutherford’s main issue, as the title hints, is one of his sons. John and Dick Rutherford want to create futures for themselves, both of which go against their father’s views and wishes for them and his company. Kai Hogenacker (John) and William Newsome (Dick) represent their characters’ struggles in such a sensitive and realistic way that the audience can truly understand and empathise with the characters.

Whilst a less obvious issue, which arises once a secret affair is brought to Rutherford’s attention, is the oppression of Rutherford’s daughter Janet and John’s wife Mary. Both women are subject to the men’s commands and constant criticism and, although they seem to have peacefully succumb to this subjugation, it is through the explosive acting abilities of Dani Beckett (Janet) and Evelina Plonyte (Mary) that it becomes obvious that these women are not to be messed with.

Rutherford4Nevertheless, through various events, it also becomes clear how Rutherford’s control reaches far beyond his family, as his focus on success impacts the lives of his neighbours and work force. In particular Martin, portrayed by Julian Casey, and Mrs Henderson, skilfully represented by Alex McDevitt as a poor working-class mother who comes begging for Rutherford to reinstate her son after Rutherford has fired him, but who threatens Rutherford the very second he threatens to take her son to the magistrate. Whilst Casey exquisitely encapsulates his character’s moral dilemma, as Martin has to decide whether to stay true to his beliefs or to go against a friend as his boss, whom he greatly respects and has worked for many years, wishes. Yet no matter his decision, it is a secret revealed to Rutherford by Dick and Janet that ends up being Martin’s undoing, again showing the power and control Rutherford has.

Rutherford and Son was originally meant to be called The Master and from Robert’s interpretation it is clear to see why. This is the master of all Northern melodramas.

Viola Selby
February 2019

Photography by Robert Vass and Lewis Hine

 

Anthropocene

Sacrifice Through a Prism of Ice

Anthropocene

by Stuart MacRae, libretto by Louise Walsh

Scottish Opera at the Hackney Empire until 9th February

Review by Mark Aspen

A polar vortex sweeps down from the north this weekend with the London premiere of Scottish Opera’s Anthropocene, an Arctic blast that is as terrifyingly fascinating as an iceberg, as multifaceted as a snowflake.

The multifaceted nature of this unusual opera is as refreshing as ice, although some may find the concept as worrying as being trapped on a ship icebound in the Arctic Ocean somewhere to the north of Greenland. For this is the setting of Anthropocene, MacRae’s new opera, on-board a scientific research ship, the RV King’s Anthropocene (undoubtedly a unique setting for an opera). The ship’s name in geological nomenclature is that of the contentiously suggested alternative to the current Holocene epoch, that where humans are in the ascendancy; or so they believe. With hubris greater than any Greek god, the owner of the ship, Harry King declares that he has mastery over nature and has sponsored this expedition to discover the origins of life. “We are like gods, reaching out” he states, hence the ship has “a name that guarantees a winner”. Anthropocentrism is all.

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Anthropocene is a piece in which meanings are multi-layered, a piece saturated with symbolisms. Its inspirations are manifold and diverse: librettist Louise Walsh refers inter alia to Frankenstein and The Tempest, and Agatha Christie seems to be lurking somewhere in this psychological thriller, but the overwhelming symbolism revolves around the theme of sacrifice. Should we look to Euripides or to the Bible? With such a wealth of allusions, Act One does seem to be overburdened with trying to work out its own genre, thriller, polemic, spoof, adventure story, spiritual guide, fable …? However, once this labour produces a clear narrative direction, it develops a strong ethos, and we are presented with an edge-of-the-seat griping tale, albeit one with mores twists and turns than the Stelvio Pass.

MacRae’s score is edgy, delicately brittle, insistent. It has the nervous feel of later Schoenberg, and conductor Stuart Stratford places the timing just right. The music is wonderfully expressive of the actions and emotions of the opera, which often bursts forth in great displays of lyrical beauty, including some duets and trios that have a transcendent early Baroque cadence. There are no huge set-piece arias: this is an ensemble driven work.

What can a designer do with a backdrop of the Arctic? Designer Samal Blak hails from the sub-polar Faroes, so he has a head start: white drapes all round. His set is largely the structure and marine plant of the ship. Hints of the form of the red hull jut out from the proscenium, hydraulic lifts and ramps centre stage, and the fourth wall starts out as the ship’s rail made up the proudly proclaimed name, A-N-T-H-R-O-P-O-C-E-N-E.
It is a pity that director, Matthew Richardson allows himself to be constrained by the ship’s rail in Act One. The cast tend to be lined up behind it like concert singers, but when the rail is removed, then his performers can move, use the whole stage and act as well as sing. Sing they do consummately, with a demanding score that expands the usual register of most of them.

Richardson also doubles as the lighting designer, and here have creates some very evocative effects, for the light of nature, and lack of it, is an imperative feature in polar regions. Most memorable is the aurora borealis, whose awe-inspiring presence is equally impressively evoked in the score, its flicker picked out by the woodwind, with the soft-focus of quarter tones.

Anthropocene. 4Even the brash and arrogant Harry King is uneasy under the eerie aurora. He has turned his entrepreneurial father’s “little million” into billons, but now wants to make a name for himself in saving the planet as well as discovering the secret of life. (He is nothing if not ambitious.) In the wilderness of the ice tundra though, he “might imagine those old superstitions true”. Tenor Mark Le Brocq plays King with gusto, his range extended with high-noted wonder, contrasting with the passages in which volatile temper boils over. On the ship with King is his daughter, Daisy, ostensibly the official photographer, but really along for the ride. Mezzo Sarah Champion makes a spirted Daisy, a voice of reason when emotions run high.

The opera opens straight into the action with the ship’s captain and engineer, Ross and Vasco, observing with great concern the rapidly falling temperature of the pack-ice that surrounds the ship. The rich resonant bass of Paul Whelan as Ross spoke strongly of the down-to-earth seafarer, yet not without the superstitions traditionally associated with this calling. Vasco is a man trying to focus on the practicalities of the day, but becoming increasingly distracted, none the least by a growing attraction to Daisy. Anthony Gregory’s fine and gentle tenor voice nicely characterises a man moved in spite of himself.

Anthropocene. 5Captain Ross wants to head immediately into open waters, but the expedition’s leader Professor Prentice urges him to stay as her husband, research scientist Charles, together with Daisy and a journalist, Miles, are away from the ship, drilling for ice-cores. Daisy and Miles return exhausted, but it is already too late and the ship is frozen in. When Charles returns, it is with an astounding discovery, a human body preserved in the ice.
One is reminded of the five millennia old Ötzi found in a glacier on the Italian-Austrian border in 1991, but this body is much better preserved.

Anthropocene. 6The shock comes when the body opens its eyes!! The unnerved Vasco smashes the ice with an axe and a young woman awakens from hibernation. In the hours after this shattering discovery, the members of the expedition party each nurtures their own ambitions for fame or fortune or both by planning to exploit this discovery. King is jubilant in that it represents an unimagined triumph for his project. Professor Prentice dreams of Noble Prizes for an “eclipsing Darwin” discovery. Jeni Bern portrays Prentice as a woman in conflict, as her objective scientific approach runs in conflict with almost maternal feelings for the mysterious woman. Her well edged soprano enhances the opportunities given by the music as she tries to assure herself that “we only know what we can measure”. Baritone Stephen Gadd fills his short arias with a sense of wonder, that “we will unlock the secrets of existence”, but relishes the fame it will bring him, he who saved her from the ice and “brought you back to life”.

Miles, however, bitter and resentful at his, at one point violent, treatment by King, is determined to make the most of the overarching scoop that will lift him from being a jobbing hack to being a wealthy man, but when his editor back in London is incredulous, he resolves to up the ante by sabotaging communications with the ship. However, when he goads Vasco over his affections for Daisy, a fight breaks out and Vasco discovers the electronic board that Miles has removed from the telecoms unit. In a panic, Miles strikes Vasco a fatal blow with a spanner. Benedict Nelson imbues the part of Miles with a skulking aggrieved edge, and an animalistic baritone underlines the character.

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The young woman from the ice calls herself Ice in a primordial expression of her own being. As Ice, Jennifer France is outstanding, right from the moment that she uncurls like a foetus from the womb, but shaking the stiffness of age from her limbs. France’s ethereal otherworldly soprano in made for the most fragile phrasing of MacRae’s score. Soaring yet subtly and delicately decorated, her voice captivates with its alien coolness. Nevertheless, there is a plangent urgency that draw as an immediate sympathy for the plight of this creature, torn between two different worlds. As the weeks pass, we learn of the shocking events that befell Ice. It was she who was chosen by her tribe to be the human sacrifice to appease the gods who bound her people in a winter without a spring. Her description of her own death is heart-rending, how (with edgy illustration from some unusual percussion) “father’s knife screamed on the whetstone” while “mother told me I was beautiful”, until “my blood melted the snow”. Here is an Iphigenia in Aulis or an Isaac on Mount Moriah without an Artemis or an angel of God to intervene.

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Some of the opera’s most lyrical passages are around the interaction of Ice with the other two women. In a duet of Baroque colour and intensity, France and Bern contrast the world views of Ice and Prentice, whilst a poetic trio by the women, a prelude to Ice’s revelations, is truly exquisite.

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Meanwhile, at the back of the set, above the hungry marooned mariners, there hangs a skinned and paunched carcass of a seal. Ice’s sacrifice was undone by her release from her frozen womb, and another sacrifice is needed to release the now crushed ship … but it is not to be the seal.

Ice explains “love bound my wrists”, “the favoured child, most loved, true sacrifice”. A sacrifice made “in fear and hate” is not true.

This cold Arctic will make some shudder, but those who see a Christ-like sacrifice through the prism of Ice will find a bracing wind in Anthropocene.

Mark Aspen
February 2019

Photography by James Glossop

The Last Five Years

Strings Attached

The Last Five Years

by Jason Robert Brown

Augusta Park Productions at the Questors Studio, Ealing until 9th February

Review by Vince Francis

Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years premiered at Chicago’s Northlight Theatre in 2001 and was then produced Off-Broadway in March 2002. The original concept was for a song cycle for two people, arising from a desire to write something “small and self-contained”. Brown did not intend it to be as personal as the resulting show, which ended up with his ex-wife, Theresa O’Neill, threatening legal action on the grounds the story represented their relationship too closely. Consequently, Brown made some changes in order to reduce the alleged similarities between the character Cathy and O’Neill.

Since then it has had numerous productions both in the United States and internationally. The production won the 2002 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Music and Lyrics, as well as receiving Drama Desk nominations for Outstanding Musical, Outstanding Actor, Outstanding Actress, Outstanding Orchestrations, and Outstanding Set Design. It also received the Lucille Lortel Award nomination for Outstanding Musical and Outstanding Actor, and the Outer Critics Circle Award nomination for Outstanding Off-Broadway Musical.

Last-Five-Years-4251This production is presented by Augusta Park Productions in the Constantin Stanislavsky Studio at Questors Theatre in Ealing, an excellent choice of venue for an intimate, off-Broadway style piece. The oblong studio is laid out “end on”, that is with the audience on the short side and the band visible upstage of the action at the other end. This provides for about a hundred seats, which adds to the intimate atmosphere. Prior to the show, I couldn’t find out much about Augusta Park Productions apart from their Facebook page (and a reference in Google to a housing development in the Test Valley). The programme tells me that the company was set up by Josh Lewis and if this production is anything to go by, I genuinely wish him all the very best in his future endeavours.

Last-Five-Years-4264The story as presented describes the five year relationship between the two protagonists, Jamie Wellerstein, played by Josh Lewis himself, and Cathy Hiatt, played by Alexandra Christle.

The show sees their stories told in opposite directions; Jamie moving forwards and Cathy backwards through their relationship, meeting only briefly for a moment in time as their stories cross. Josh and Alexandra are both consummate singers and the band, ably directed by Sara Page, provides an ideal platform for them to explore and play around with timing and phrasing, which adds to the character development.

 

Last-Five-Years-4232In terms of orchestration, the show is an ideal candidate for a small ensemble, perhaps even a straightforward solo piano accompaniment and, indeed, the last time I saw it, the band comprised keyboard, bass and guitar and that worked very well. The band for this production follows the original orchestration of Keyboard, Bass, Guitar, two Cellos and violin. Drum kit is omitted, which is probably wise for a smaller venue. This configuration obviously allows the songs to be heard as intended by the writer and was a welcome enhancement to my previous viewing of the show. The band was generally excellent, although there were one or two issues with tuning on the violin on occasion and a couple of instances where it seemed a little bass heavy, although this might have been a function of where I was sitting.

For me, one of the most appealing aspects of Brown’s music is its accessibility, which is achieved, at least in part, I think, by the inclusion of contemporary and mainstream references and influences in the writing. There is a direct sample of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring in the opening number, I’m Still Hurting and, elsewhere, it’s good to hear a Jackson Browne or a Jimmy Webb hint in the broad mix of styles used in the show.

I also liked the straightforward and simple production values in elements such as the set, which uses mainly furniture and furniture dressing and which is changed subtly by the two players as required. Similarly, costumes are kept simple and contemporary, with the addition of a cardigan or sweater here and there to indicate changes in time and mood. Lighting is supportive and sympathetic and creates appropriate moods without being fussy or tricksy. All of these elements help to keep the focus on the performers and the poignant story they are telling.

Grab a ticket if you can, it’s well worth a look.

Vince Francis
February 2019

Photography courtesy of Augusta Park Productions

The Sleeping Beauty

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The Sleeping Beauty

by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky , choreography by Marius Petipa

Moscow City Ballet at Richmond Theatre until 3rd February, then UK Tour continues until 23rd February

A review by Juliet Manners

Moscow City Ballet, founded in 1988 by choreographer Victor Smirnov-Golovanov, showcases the greatest works of the 19th and 20th century ballet heritage, whilst simultaneously using the strapline ‘Dancing for the New Generation’. Its remit was accomplished in this production, which was a true depiction of traditional Russian classical ballet, designed to appeal to all ages.

Although in today’s world of #MeToo, the idea of a woman receiving an unsolicited kiss is considered a violation, The Sleeping Beauty, based on the French La Belle au bois dormant by Charles Perrault, remains a well-known romantic fairy tale. If one can overlook this feature of the story, it provides more palatable food for thought in its expression of the fight between good and evil. With choreography from 1890 by ballet master and choreographer Marius Petipa (himself also French), the production features a variety of characters taken from Perrault’s other fairy stories, which in themselves were written as moral tales, albeit from another time and place. As Petipa enjoyed a career spanning over thirty years as Premier Maître de Ballet of the St. Petersburg Imperial Theatres, what became one of the most popular ballets of the repertoire certainly serves to illustrate the most traditional and pure form of the classical style.

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The design of the whole piece was what I have to come to expect from the Russian touring companies; opulent backdrops rendered by painted gauzes, which for the majority of the production depicted a Royal Palace in all its splendour. Designers Natalia Povago and Evgeny Gurenko evoked the magnificence of a baroque-style European Court, whilst Elisaveta Dvorkina had free reign to give the costumes a truly sparkling touch, particularly notable in the traditional classical tutus and the robes worn by King Florestan and his Queen.

The Royal couple have given birth to a daughter and it is the celebration of her christening to which we are invited in the Prologue. Master of Ceremonies Catalabutte, danced and acted with great animation almost in the style of a circus performer or pantomime character, has invited all the fairies of the land to bestow their gifts upon baby Princess Aurora. The courtiers portrayed by the corps de ballet were suitably regal and deferent, although in contrast to Catalabutte, their acting was noticeably understated. The sound classical technique and exceptional grace of movement on which the company prides itself was evident, although I did feel that the grand ensembles were somewhat hampered by the constraints of the relatively small Richmond stage.

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A series of variations from the fairies of the Crystal Fountain, the Woodland Glade, the Enchanted Garden and the Golden Vine, as well as the Breadcrumb Fairy were all well danced, although I must admit to finding some of Petipa’s choreography less attractive in this section. The Lilac Fairy however, is a dream of a part for any ballerina. Unfortunately there was no cast list available for this evening’s performance, but the featured dancer had a lovely ‘line’ and particularly beautiful ports de bras.

Too late for Catalabutte, he realises that he has forgotten to invite the Fairy Carabosse. She appears with her entourage of bats in a swirling mist of black and places a curse on the baby, that she will prick her finger and die. The character artist who portrays Carabosse was a ‘baddie’ in the most traditional sense, who in typical style is succeeded by the heroic Lilac Fairy, who revokes the spell so that Aurora will not die but merely fall asleep for a hundred years, until she is woken by a Prince’s kiss.

Act I commences with celebrations for Princess Aurora’s sixteenth birthday in the grounds of the Palace. The suitably glossy tour programme with pictures of the principal dancers of the company allowed me to see that Aurora was portrayed by the Ballet’s main ‘face’, Lilia Orekhova, coquettish in her interactions with the four Princes who appear as her suitors. The notoriously difficult Rose Adagio, which requires Aurora to balance for a long time en attitude to be serenaded by each Prince, showcased her long lines and extension and was received with appreciation by the audience.

Carabosse suddenly appears again disguised as an old woman and presents Aurora with a spindle, on which she pricks her finger and collapses. Here once again we see the juxtaposition between evil and good as Carabosse reveals her true identity and the Lilac Fairy reappears to cast a spell of sleep on the whole Court.

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The dashing Prince Florimund of Act II was danced this evening by principal dancer , first seen out hunting with his courtiers. Here the backdrop of the forest was suggested by gauzes of brooding darkness which served to further illustrate the melancholic mood in which the Prince finds himself. A vision of the Princess Aurora asleep in the palace gives him a purpose, and the Prince is directed by the Lilac Fairy to find her. Tall and rangy, Orlov showcased athleticism in his solo dancing although once again the small size of the stage became apparent, and the extreme rake may have contributed to his one stumble, surely a terrible moment for any dancer. Notwithstanding, true professionalism reigned supreme. After awakening Princess Aurora with a kiss, their pas de deux was stunning to watch.

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In the final Act we find ourselves in the Palace Ballroom where the Court is celebrating the wedding of Aurora and Florimund. The Grand polonaise dansée sees turns by characters such as the Bluebird, Puss in Boots and the White Cat and Red Riding Hood and Wolf who have come to pay their respects, all beautifully performed by members of the company, as well as some lovely variations by the Gold, Silver, Sapphire and Diamond Fairies. As the celebrations come to a close the Prince and Princess dance together in a final ‘happy ever after’.

Whilst the storyline has undeniably dated, this was an enjoyable evening in real fairy tale style.

Juliet Manners
February 2019

Photography by Nada Savic

Swan Lake

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Swan Lake

by Pyotr Tchaikovsky , choreography by Victor Smirnov-Golovanov after Marius Petipa, Lev Ivanov and others.

Moscow City Ballet at Richmond Theatre until 31st January, then UK Tour continues until 2nd March

A review by Mark Aspen

In a ballet that is so full of ironies as Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, it is perhaps appropriate that Smirnov-Golovanov, the Moscow City Ballet’s late chorographer should choose to make the character of the Jester so important.

The Jester is in on all of the action in the court of Prince Siegfried and acts rather like a one-man Greek chorus in commenting on the action. Aleksei Tsauko makes a very expressive Jester, embellishing his athletic yet relaxed style with adept tumbling and mime.

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Tsauko’s nicely controlled jetés served to reassure me about the constraints of the Richmond Theatre stage. The ballet opens onto designer Natalia Povago’s beautiful cinnamon court, where the Jester is a prime mover in the celebrations of Siegfried’s twenty-first birthday. But when over two dozen dancers are in full flight the Richmond stage begins to look rather small. However, version choreography director Natalia Ryzhenko skilfully manages to overcome any potential problems, including the notoriously steep rake on this stage. One wonders, nevertheless, whether the male principals were inhibited by space limitations in the power that they could deliver to the larger moves.

In the birthday scenes Siegfried and his friend Benno do a lot of what 21 year olds do: they drink. (And my, they get through a quiet a few goblets of wine … or possibly vodka?) The admonishments of the Queen, in this production Siegfried’s aunt, that his coming of age means he must choose a bride, go unheeded. Olga Orlova plays a suitably haughty Prince’s Aunt, a statuesque disapproving observer. As Benno, Dzmitry Lazovik, the MCB’s youngest principal dancer, brings a fresh lightness to the part, imbuing it with easeful fluidity, which speaks of the light-hearted nature of Siegfried’s confidante, a temperament accentuated by Lazovik’s natural ballon.

Siegfried always seems to be at a loose end at his birthday bash, and it is not until Benno suggests a spot of evening hunting that he has chance to come into his own. The enchanting full moon (beautifully executed by lighting designer Evgeny Selivanov) throws its evanescent glow across Povago’s lake (which, as an aside, is eerily reminiscent of the Dorset coastline at Durdle Door). However, this is the Swan Lake, a lake of tears where the Princess Odette is held captive by the black arts of the evil Von Rothbart, in the guise of the Queen of the Swans, only briefly resuming her human form in the moonlight. In this conducive ambience, Odette and Siegfried fall in love.

SwanLakepromo4The established Principal Dancer, Daniil Orlov, tall and imposing, is a suitably princely Siegfried and is well matched with the company’s Prima Ballerina, Lillia Orekhova, who is often described as “the Face of the Moscow City Ballet”. Slender and sinuous she has the swan-like grace and portrays the elusively of the captive swan. However, their initial well-known pas de deux seems somewhat restrained, marked in delivery. It proved to be held-back for things to come later, lost in the chocolate-box symmetry of the corps de ballet’s eighteen fluttering swans. Another famous avian piece, the pas de quatre of the cygnets was an audience pleaser. Then Odette disappears from the Prince’s sight in Orekhova’s delicate quivering bourrées.

All the while Von Rothbart, disguised as an owl, has been hovering around the pair. A sinister black figure with filigree wings, Principal Talgat Kozhabaev’s interpretation of the bird of prey, ubiquitously stalking has an apprehensive feel.

The next day auntie has organised a debutantes’ ball at which Siegfried is obliged to consider candidates for his marriage, would-be brides who have come from all over the world. The presentation of the eligible princesses is a pleasing showcase of some fine dancing. Polina Dyachkova, the Hungarian Bride, dressed in pale grey, has a vivacious grace in her czardas, an arresting opening to this divertissement. The staccato passion of Kseniya Stankevich’s Spanish Bride, very much sangre de Toro in her swirling dress, brings great gusto to her bolero with its tambourine and castanets motif. The strident motif of the Neapolitan Bride is set by the cornet, and Kseniya Basnet is a joy to watch as the tempo gradually quickens. Then Mariya Tsibulina and Larisa Robles-Zaleveskaya complete this colourful interlude with the twin Polish Brides’ mazurka, danced with folksy abandon.

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But all good things come to an end as the ball is gate-crashed by Von Rothbart and his nefarious daughter, Odile. Recognising the resemblance to Odette, the hitherto listless Siegfried is fired with desire. Orlov and Orekhova attack this scene with vigour. Maliciously seductive, the antithetical Odile teases Siegfried with allusions to Odette. Orekhova’s angular athleticism works well as Odile, a part often seen as the stronger in this mirrored double role, whist Orlov opens up with some strong interpretive working of his role including impressive tours jetés. Their rendering of the famous pas de deux and the multi-fouettées bravura, belied their earlier less inspired exposition. Equally, Kozhabaev opened up the confident triumph seen in Von Rothbart as he achieves his goal of tricking Siegfried into an engagement with his daughter. His strutting supremacy is echoed in Odile’s victorious lightness: she almost flies. Meanwhile, Siegfried has realised how he has been gulled. There is a moment of deflation that is so well acted by Orlov, a perforation of his soul.

The Hungarian Sinfonietta Orchestra, under the baton of Igor Shavruk, take the ballet on a musical journey much appreciated by the audience. Shavruk knows when to underline the whimsy, to have fun; or, in the most dramatic parts, to really punch home the power of Tchaikovsky’s score.

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Back at the lake for the final act, the tempestuous setting adds to the drama in a concatenation of pathos, then fear, then despair. The anguished realisation for Odette of Von Rothbart’s treachery and the last attempts of the hapless Siegfried to beg forgiveness, and the torment of the swan-maidens expressed in the forming and re-forming of the corps de ballet, lead to an intense finale. In the many versions of Swan Lake, some end happily, most end tragically, but this one ends ambiguously. Siegfried fights and overcomes Von Rothbart, but are the swan-maidens freed form their bounds? Are Siegfried and Odette forever united in an apotheosis of their love? Or are they drowned in the lake of tears, the Swan Lake?

Death or glory? Perhaps the ambiguity is the quintessence of this Swan Lake. It starts with a Jester and the irony is that the jester figuratively has the last laugh.

Mark Aspen
January 2019

Photography by Nada Savic