Did you say you wanted more theatre memories? March to October 1996

  1. Dance Bites – The Royal Ballet at the Swan Theatre, High Wycombe, 19th March 1996

Over a few years the Royal Ballet did a mini tour every Spring to certain selected theatres – and because the Wycombe Swan was managed by the balletomane Stuart Griffiths (who went on to manage Dance Consortium, amongst other ventures), our local theatre was always amongst the first to get good contemporary and classical dance. So Dance Bites became a regular show until the 1999 season.  Never before had we seen such well known and well regarded classical dancers. The programme started with Signed in Red, choreographed by Emma Diamond, which included Deborah Bull, Adam Cooper and William Trevitt (of Balletboyz fame) amongst its line-up. Then we had the world premiere of Ashley Page’s Sleeping with Audrey, music composed by Orlando Gough, which I remember being thoroughly unusual, Souvenir, choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, Odalisque choreographed by Tom Sapsford, a pas de deux by Ashley Page entitled …Now Languorous, Now Wild…, danced by Darcey Bussell and Jonathan Cope – a real crowdpleaser casting there, and finally William Forsythe’s Steptext, danced by Deborah Bull, Adam Cooper, Tetsuya Kumakawa and Matthew Dibble. Truly a night to remember.

  1. Swan Lake – Adventures in Motion Pictures at the Swan Theatre, High Wycombe, 30th March 1996

Matthew Bourne’s ground-breaking production of Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece is still packing them in in theatres all around the world (that is, when theatres all around the world are allowed to reopen). It had opened at Sadlers’ Wells the previous November, and we saw it on one of its very first out-of-town performances, a Saturday matinee in High Wycombe. For me, this is the most impressive dance production I’ve ever seen – and I’ve gone back to it again and again over the intervening decades. Perhaps because this was our first time, we still look back on this production as featuring the dream team of casts: Scott Ambler as The Prince, Will Kemp as the Swan, Fiona Chadwick as the Queen, Emily Piercey as The Girlfriend and Barry Atkinson as the Press Secretary. If you haven’t seen it – mark it down in your diaries as soon as theatres come back to life. The Original and Best.

  1. Dial M for Murder – Mobil Touring Theatre at the Swan Theatre, High Wycombe, 13th April 1996

Frederick Knott’s classic thriller was given a smart and stylish production with Peter Davison and Catherine Rabett as Tony and Sheila Wendice. Best known as the Hitchcock film starring Ray Milland and Grace Kelly, it’s an intriguing story that goes to prove that the perfect murder just doesn’t exist. Very enjoyable.

  1. English National Ballet – Swan Theatre, High Wycombe, 24th May 1996

I have to confess that I remember very little of this programme of dance from the English National Ballet. I can see from the list of dancers that it featured Principal Dancer Josephine Jewkes, Senior Soloists Angela De Mello and Kevin Richmond, and Soloists Rebecca Sewell and Paul Lewis. The programme was Mauro Bigonzetti’s Symphonic Dances, Kenneth Macmillan’s My Brother, My Sisters, and David Lichine’s Graduation Ball. I’m sure it was all terrific. But I can’t remember a thing about it.

  1. Victoria Wood on Tour – Apollo Theatre, Oxford, 25th June 1996

At the time, you probably couldn’t have gone to a more on-trend and must-see comedy show than Victoria Wood’s tour, when she was at her height of creativity. She knew exactly what her fans wanted – a mixture of old and new, so there was plenty of fresh stand-up, but still time for The Ballad of Freda and Barry and other old gems. Demand for tickets was very high and all we could get were two seats right at the very far end of the second row. It was great to be there; but I think I remember coming away with the idea that she was better on TV.

  1. I Have Been Here Before – Middle Ground Theatre at the Swan Theatre, High Wycombe, 29th June 1996

I remember that this show was booked for just half a week at the Swan – from the Thursday to the Saturday, so they couldn’t have been confident that it would have attracted those early to midweek bums on seats. One of J B Priestley’s more mysterious Time Plays, I remember it being absolutely gripping, and a thoroughly decent production to boot. Starring Nicholas Smith (Are You Being Served’s Mr Rumbold) and Frederick Pyne (Emmerdale Farm’s Matt Skilbeck) and directed by David Kelsey, Artistic Director of Middle Ground Theatre Company, who sadly died during the play’s tour.

  1. Barnum – Swan Theatre, High Wycombe, 12th July 1996

Breaking my rule about not including shows in these blog posts that I had already seen, this production of Cy Coleman, Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble’s fantastic musical was notable for a few reasons. I think it was the first national tour of this show since it left the Palladium years previously; secondly, it drew very little attention from audiences and critics alike; thirdly it was also directed by the late David Kelsey who had died during the tour of both this show and the one I’ve just written about above ; and fourthly it starred a big name on TV at the time, game show host Andrew O’Connor, who was surprisingly superb in the role. I really enjoyed it – and was shocked at how few people there were in the audience on a Friday night!

  1. There’s a Girl in my Soup – Apollo Theatre, Oxford, 27th July 1996

Continuing to break my rule about not including shows in these blog posts that I had already seen, I was so excited at the prospect of a revival of Terence Frisby’s 60s smash hit that I had seen as a little kid and loved every minute of. So I was massively disappointed – but really shouldn’t have been surprised – that the touring production which we saw in the enormous Apollo Theatre Oxford on a Saturday matinee had one of the tiniest audiences I’ve ever seen. Whether it was the casting – with Love Thy Neighbour’s Jack Smethurst as Andrew (at a time when everyone believed that the content of that show was no longer something to be proud of) or whether it was just that the Swinging Sixties were an outdated concept, I don’t know. Despite them closing the circle and asking everyone in the Stalls to bunch up into the front five rows, this production had no hope of raising the tiniest of laughs and it was an embarrassment to be there. Not because it was bad, because it wasn’t. But because it was just wrong. I felt very sorry for Mr Smethurst – he was hoist by his own petard by being so good in Love Thy Neighbour that the general public couldn’t see that he was in fact an actor, rather than that bigoted character.

  1. High Society – Swan Theatre, High Wycombe, 20th September 1996

Moving past that year’s offering at the Pendley Festival – The Merchant of Venice – our next show was a production of Cole Porter’s so-called champagne musical, High Society, which we saw with the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle as we thought it would be her kind of thing. The musical version of the successful film, The Philadelphia Story, this excellent production was enormous fun, boasting a splendid cast including Tracey Childs, Michael Howe, Roland Curram and the one and only Miss Jackie Trent. We all had a swell party.

  1. Rambert Dance Company Autumn Tour – Swan Theatre, High Wycombe, 10th October 1996

At a time when we simply couldn’t get enough Rambert, this was another superb programme. First was Christopher Bruce’s Moonshine, set to the music of Bob Dylan, and danced by Didy Veldman, Christopher Powney, Steven Brett and Sheron Wray. Next came the world premiere of Kim Brandstrup’s Eidolon, with Laurent Cavanna, Sarah Warsop, Simon Cooper, Daniel de Bourg, Rafael Bonachela, Patricia Hines, Elizabeth Old, Fabrice Serafino and Didy Veldman. After another interval it was Veldman’s own Kol Simcha, with the cast including Paul Liburd, Simon Cooper and Rafael Bonachela. Such great names, and such great performances.

Review – Le Corsaire, English National Ballet, Milton Keynes Theatre, 17th October 2013

Le CorsaireIf you’re into your classical ballet, I think it’s safe to say that the Milton Keynes Theatre was “The Place To Be” yesterday for the opening performance of the first ever full production of Le Corsaire by a UK company. Unsurprisingly the place was packed with enthusiastic balletomanes who felt they were about to witness an important evening in the history of ballet. It’s really bizarre that this is the first such production; I am sure I have seen it staged in full before – but it may have been either at the Paris Opera or by the Royal New Zealand ballet. Anyway, I was as enthusiastic as anyone to see what was in store.

 Vadim MuntagirovIt sure is lavish. The sets and costumes are by Bob Ringwood of Batman fame, and evoke an exotic atmosphere of 19th century Eastern Promise. You would expect Aladdin and his genie to emerge any minute from the Market squares and minarets, and it would be a perfect setting for a revival of Kismet. The attention to detail is superb; the craftsmanship that went into the physical creation of those sets and costumes is immense. The Pasha’s sedan chair and entourage, the pirates’ horde of treasures, the dresses of the harem girls all shimmer and shine with jewels and crystals, giving an incredible image of rich luxury. And what a delight to see and hear a full orchestra! Mrs Chrisparkle and I were reflecting that it’s something you rarely see; most dance nowadays seems to be accompanied by a backing track or at best a handful of musicians; and in the big musicals the orchestra is often kept obscured at the back or even completely out of sight. They were terrific, and filled the theatre with the ballet’s rich score.

Alina CojocaruBut it’s all about the dance, isn’t it? Technically, it was a complete treat from start to finish. There are few things more serene than the exquisite elegance of a ballerina, or more inspiring than the athletic bravado of her male counterpart; and this production is crammed with both. It was so rewarding to see Petipa and Sergeyev’s choreography after having recently seen another company perform Swan Lake to the drabbest, most inelegant choreography imaginable. It’s no wonder this form of artistry survives the decades. Conrad, the corsair himself, is danced by Vadim Muntagirov with incredible joie-de-vivre, performing his leaps and twists with great accuracy and amazing strength. His love, Medora, whom he has to rescue from the slave trader Lankendem, is the gorgeous Alina Cojocaru, winner of almost every award under the sun, who simply radiates beauty in everything she does. There’s hardly any point describing the manner in which these incredibly skilful people dance – they are just extraordinary, I cannot analyse further on their abilities. It’s hardly surprising they stop the show after every dance to take a bow.

Dmitri Gruzdyev & Erina TakahashiDmitri Gruzdyev, member of English National Ballet for twenty years now, is a characterful lowlife Lankendem, a slave trader in it purely for the money and the sex, you’d imagine. He couldn’t care less that Conrad loves Medora, and gives some delightfully dismissive “so what” gestures when challenged. When captured, he becomes a snivelling coward too, which was very nicely portrayed. I was very impressed with his Act One pas de deux with Erina Takahashi as Gulnare; she danced with incredible grace, but he also gave her great support. Similarly I also really enjoyed the partnership of Yonah Acosta as Birbanto and Crystal Costa (Lead Villager) – not only was it beautiful but it had an injection of quite a lot of fun too. But probably the audience’s favourite was a stunning performance by Junor Souza as the slave Ali, with some superb solos and excellent character playing – I don’t think he’s going to remain at “Junior Soloist” level for long. I’m not entirely sure about the decision to make the Pasha a figure of fun. Mrs C thought it was a bit too cartoony, and whilst I quite enjoyed Michael Coleman’s performance I did find the character of his assistant, with his constant flapping around him like Pingu on speed, rather irritating. We were, however, both very impressed at the performances of the children from the Tring Park School – keeping perfect time and acting as elegantly as it is possible for children to do.

Yonah AcostaThe only other aspect that slightly disappointed me was not the fault of the English National Ballet, or Adolph Adam, or Petipa and Sergeyev; it’s just that for me the third and final act rather runs out of steam. There’s the long scene representing the Pasha’s dream of his harem – a simple device to get a full dance sequence out of your top ballerinas, but there’s no story element to it; then the final denouement takes place quite rapidly, and I found Conrad’s shooting Birbanto a little underwhelming – sorry if I have ruined the story for you (it might have worked better if Mr Acosta hadn’t started to get up off the floor until the curtain had finally come down all the way to stage level); the much anticipated shipwreck scene is rather quick and (apart from Ali’s athletic exit) doesn’t really contain any dance as such; and the very final scene is more of a whimper than a bang. But this is still a tremendous production and chock-full of superb performances, and I am sure it will have a hugely successful tour.

Crystal CostaAudience etiquette question #1: I sat next to two elderly ladies, absolutely enthralled by the production, and politely confining their intelligent conversation about the show to the intervals. However, one of them spent the entire evening waving the most rattly fan in front of her face – it sounded like she was juggling a bag of marbles all night. It was very distracting. I didn’t say anything, but I am sure others would have been equally disturbed by her. Should I have said something?

Junor SouzaAudience etiquette question #2: At curtain call a gentlemen in the row in front and about four seats to my left couldn’t contain his enthusiasm and stood up during the applause when Mr Acosta came on and stayed standing for the rest of the call. It’s a genuine source of embarrassment when you start a standing ovation and no one else follows you, but I always think it looks really awful if you then decide to sit down again. So I say, stand up, and stay stood up if that’s how much you enjoyed it. However, another man sat behind him remonstrated with him for standing up and asked him to sit down. “Didn’t you enjoy it?” asked the standing man. “Yes but I want to see it” said the seated one. Abashed, the man sat down again. Are there rules about ovating alone during a curtain call?