Review – Them/Us, Balletboyz, Sadler’s Wells Theatre, 6th March 2019

Them/UsThe Balletboyz have carved out a fantastic reputation for themselves in the twenty years or so since they left the Royal Ballet. I first saw Michael Nunn and William Trevitt in a Dance Bites programme at the Wycombe Swan back in 1996, sharing the stage alongside such great names as Deborah Bull, Jonathan Cope, Adam Cooper and Dame Darcey Bussell. Their name came from a TV film they made of their creative partnership, and in about 2001 they created the George Piper Dances. But the Balletboyz label stuck, and wisely they reverted to that catchy name by which they are respected and loved today.

TU3Them/Us is a new programme partly devised by the current group of dancers under the direction of Messrs Nunn and Trevitt, and partly choreographed by Christopher Wealdon. It’s a creative process that has worked backwards. Us, the second act of the programme, is an expansion of an original pas de deux choreographed by Mr Wealdon, which premiered in 2017 to great acclaim, designed to provide more of a narrative introduction to the existing work.

TU5And then before the interval, Them – created by the company – is a further introduction to the later content, taking ideas from the dancers as to the very varied definitions of what Them might mean (to them, obviously). The result is an exciting and exhilarating double-act of dances, with fantastic performances of variations on similar choreographic movements, reflected between both pieces.

TU4Them starts with six dancers, in multicoloured tracksuit-type shirt and trousers, seemingly meeting for the first time. A large and sturdy cube structure is walked into place, with which the dancers interact, walking through the spaces it provides or being enclosed by its invisible walls. The dancers each set up their own choreography with one another, whether it be handshake-type gestures, jokey gymnastics or intimate closer movement. As the dance progresses, two dancers who are already working together will attract a third to their group; and then a fourth, and eventually a chain of dancers linked by hands starts to envelop and wrap around itself. It’s almost a viscous flowing movement; it reminded me of the swirly convolutions of a model of a double helix molecule.

TU6Although I couldn’t truly discern a clear and obvious narrative to the dance, what struck me was that it was all about individual people supporting each other. This is not one of those male-oriented dances that is all about supremacy and survival of the fittest. This is an environment where everyone matters, and conflict is replaced by care. This sense of charity and kindness continues on to Us, where the six dancers now appear more formally in long grey jackets, a little like frock coats, but their movements become freer as the jackets come off and they just appear in white shirts. The whole momentum culminates in the original duet, where the shirts are also removed and the whole final sequence reminded me of a guy looking at himself in the bathroom mirror, unsure of what he sees in his reflection; until his reflection takes over and reassures him that all will be well. Or, it could be a simple love story. Either way, it’s one of the most dynamic and tender performances you’re ever likely to see between two male dancers.

TU1I was particularly impressed with the fluidity and flexibility, not only how the dancers used their bodies but also in their control of the choreographic movement throughout. Nothing was ever distorted, jarring or irrational in its movement; even when the music suggested a throb of pain or a blow to the head, everything flowed beautifully, with the effect that it made the dancers’ performances look easy – which of course, is far from the truth! That the company members possess great skill is obvious; what they also have is an enormous understanding and trust between themselves, which really becomes apparent in such a detailed and accurate performance.

TU2The whole company dance with enormous strength, style and emotion; but, to name names, the final duet from Harry Price and Bradley Waller is stand-out sensational, and I also really enjoyed their performances alongside Liam Riddick earlier in the evening, who is on immaculate form as always. Coming up the ranks Ben Knapper performed a fantastic solo inside the cube to powerful drum rhythms and he is definitely my new One To Watch in contemporary dance. And I haven’t even mentioned the thrilling music!

TU7A full Sadler’s Wells on a Wednesday night speaks volumes for the popularity of the company and the esteem with which it is held. After their week in London, their tour continues to Salisbury, Bromley, Portsmouth, Newcastle, Exeter, Chester, Richmond, Guildford, Glasgow, High Wycombe, Oxford, Finchley and Bristol by the end of April. Powerful and emotional – a must-see!

Production photos by George Piper 😉

Review – Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake, Sadler’s Wells Theatre, 29th December 2018

Matthew Bourne's Swan LakeFor the record, this was the 7th time Mrs Chrisparkle and I have seen Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake since 1996 – and to be honest, I thought I’d seen it more. There’s no doubt in my mind that this is the finest full-length dance that’s been created in my lifetime, and I don’t know anyone who’s seen it, balletomanes or not, either live or on DVD/TV, who wasn’t impressed with it.

Dominic North as the PrinceIf you haven’t seen it – I can only recommend you try to get a ticket; however, not at Sadler’s Wells, as the entire run is sold out but elsewhere on its tour to Milton Keynes, Birmingham, Southampton, Glasgow and Bristol. You don’t have to have seen an original, classical version of the ballet beforehand, but if you have, there’s the additional fun of working out how Sir Matthew has adapted some of the original characters. But it’s still a superb, stand-alone story of how the young Prince, deprived of maternal affection, is trying to make sense of his life, duty and emotions; and how he finds a purpose with the Swan who may – or may not – be imaginary.

Will BozierI’d love to invite you to read my reviews of when we saw it in Milton Keynes in 2010 and Leicester in 2013 as well, because they show how this dance is constantly evolving. In those blogs I wrote about the changes I had seen from how I remembered it in its early days. Those changes were made sometimes for the better, sometimes not – and once again, in this 2018/2019 tour, there have been further changes, primarily thanks to Kerry Biggin’s re-staging. So much of the meaning of the dance is up to your own personal interpretation of what you see, and your emotional response to it, which also changes over the years.

Prince at SwankThe scene that seems to cry out for constant tinkering is the seedy backstreet disco towards the end of Act One. When we saw it five years ago, I enjoyed how they had created recognisable historical characters like Joe Orton and Quentin Crisp among the attendees – and that the older, tweedy lesbian disco bunny who has always been part of the action was very like June Buckridge from The Killing of Sister George. This time round, the disco scene is more anodyne. Out go the recognisable characters to be replaced by a less charismatic range of dancers; the girls are all in the same glitzy party dresses, the boys are all largely indistinguishable; and they’re all more or less the same age. I missed the sailors on shore leave, who kicked the Prince in the gutter outside the club on the way home. I missed the tweedy lesbian who hovered around the performing female artiste. I missed the schoolboy who sneaks into the disco illicitly, still wearing his school cap.

Swans a swanningSome time ago they changed the opening scene, where we meet the young Prince, getting washed and dressed, and being taken out with the Queen to learn the Art of Royalty. Originally it was a deliberate representation of a child in the role; nowadays it’s danced by the same performer who plays the grown-up Prince. The “child” dancer would also go on to play the schoolboy in the disco scene – which is why I presume he’s now missing. The main problem with that though, is the very final, searingly moving tableau of the show. The Swan always used to cradle the boy in his arms as they look down on the dead Prince on the bed (sorry if that’s a shock). Now he’s just seen with another unknown dancer – who he? – and that final tableau doesn’t particularly make sense anymore.

Queen launchingElsewhere, the First Act dog no longer comedically pulls the soldier who’s taking it for a walk off stage; in the opera house scene, the cast no longer serenely bow to an empty royal box – instead the soldier/courtier rushes in to pick up the girlfriend’s handbag and gets caught in the spotlights. However, there are also many instances where new changes create a superb effect. The lighting, for instance, in this current production, seems to provide extra stage depth in many of the scenes, and the looming shadows cast in the Prince’s bedroom take on a life of their own. The orchestra, under the baton of Brett Morris, played Tchaikovsky’s memorable score with tight excitement and supreme levels of emotion. No change there – I can’t remember a time when the music wasn’t superb.

StrangerBut it’s all about the dancing, isn’t it? Throughout the show it feels like the choreography has been ratcheted up a notch. It’s dangerous, it’s visceral, it’s strenuous. The Act One pas de deux between the Prince and the Queen is thrilling in the near-violence of the Prince’s physical beseeching for attention from his wayward mother. The Prince’s happiness and relief at the end of Act Two as he tears up his suicide note is the most boundless and joyous I’ve ever seen it. The fury of the jealous big-headed Act Three guest who insists that his partner behaves herself, is even more over the top and her dismissing him by chucking her cloak over his head is even more hilarious. The Act Three mocking of the Prince by the Swan and the other guests is even more savage. The general hissing and chattering of the swans, where once they were silent, creates further aggression and hostility; more than ever the swans in this production inhabit a macho environment of competitiveness and antagonism. All the way through the choreography continues to push the boundaries to encourage and enable even more technical brilliance from the dancers and a stronger emotional response from the audience.

Stranger in flightFor our show, we had two knock-out performances from Dominic North as the Prince and Will Bozier as the Swan. We saw Mr North in Matthew Bourne’s Lord of the Flies a few years ago and he still retains those incredibly expressive features that make all the difference when it comes to clear story-telling – in fact, this production of Swan Lake tells its story more clearly and eloquently than we’ve ever seen before. Mr North is an immaculate precision dancer who shines throughout the whole show, whether it be in his dance-based confrontations with the Queen, his rhapsodic joy at being saved by the Swan, or his being manipulated by the Stranger – he was perfect. Mr Bozier is a real find; tall and broad, he makes for a very masculine Swan and an extraordinarily insolent Stranger. Physically he towers over Mr North in their dances together – in a protective way as the Swan and overflowing with arrogance as the Stranger. I’ve not seen Mr Bozier before; he’s a dancer of superb skill and very exciting to watch. I can’t wait to see him in another role in the future.

QueenOur Queen was Nicole Kabera, and, like the rest of the cast, a perfect fit for the role. Superbly man-hungry, you sense this queen will have worked her way through the entire army by daybreak; no wonder she has no time for her pathetic specimen of a son. Ms Kabera has a fantastic stage presence and a very alluring manner; you can really feel that the Prince would be overwhelmingly intimidated by her. Katrina Lyndon’s Girlfriend is a complete hoot who really puts the common into commoner, with her total lack of etiquette but enormous sense of fun; in what I think is a change (or an addition) to the plot, this Girlfriend decides to return the money to the Private Secretary that he had originally paid her for trapping the Prince. And Glenn Graham was our smart and sinister Private Secretary; we saw him dance the Swan five years ago and he still packs a very strong stage presence.

Naughty swansWhat can I say? It’s a devastatingly wonderful production. Mrs C and I were up on our feet at the end with no hesitation. I can’t think of any production better suited to introduce an adult who knows nothing of the genre to the world of dance. However, it was also terrific to see so many children in the audience, both boys and girls, enthralled by it. Twenty-three years ago I knew this show would run and run. It’s showing no signs of stopping yet.

Production photos by Johan Persson

Review – Rambert2 and Ghost Dances, Sadler’s Wells, 8th November 2018

Rambert2 and Ghost DancesIt’s been a couple of years since we’ve seen Rambert, and a full nineteen years since we last saw Ghost Dances – which was the prime motivator for coming to see this revival at Sadler’s Wells. Over the decades it has remained my absolute favourite dance and – whilst being fully aware that this sounds completely pretentious – I truly consider it one of the cultural foundations on which my whole life has been based. I first saw it way back when, in the seas of time, with my friends Lord Liverpool and the Countess of Cockfosters – a mere slip of a thing we were – so it was only right that we invited them to join us for what would be their first time of seeing it in 36 years. How the hell can it be that long ago?

Grey MatterBut there’s a twist with this programme from Rambert – they’ve created Rambert2, a company for 18 to 25 year old dancers. It’s good for companies to keep evolving, suiting the needs of the age and the tastes of the dance fan base; and there are other dance outfits – Nederlands Dans Theater springs instantly to mind – who have a “young persons” troupe as well as their standard company. When we first saw NDT2 we were totally blown away by their vigour, commitment, skill and enormous sense of daring and fun. Would the new Rambert2, who dance the first, second and fourth dances in this programme, be the same?

More Grey MatterThe proof of the pudding is in the dancing! The first dance of the evening was Grey Matter, choreographed by Benoit Swan Pouffer, Rambert’s Guest Artistic Director whilst they find a replacement for Mark Baldwin. This is not, incidentally, to be confused with Didy Veldman’s Greymatter that she choreographed for Rambert in 1997. The programme notes remind us that Grey Matter refers to our brain cells, and that the dance is about a person who loses sight of their memories, and a community grows around them giving them support. However! I have to say, I didn’t get that narrative from watching the dance at all. For me, the costumes of the dancers suggested to me that they were all individual pieces of brain matter; neurons, electrical impulses, even infected material that the other healthy brainy globules united to crush. They were all individual parts of a functioning brain; supportive, defensive, communicative. The young dancers were on fine form, and gave a great performance. The lighting also added a huge amount of atmosphere and suspense; the choreography amused me, but I couldn’t actually put my finger on ascribing a style to it. Definitely exhilarating, and extremely curious.

E2 7SDNext up was Rafael Bonachela’s E2 7SD. He created it in 2004; it’s obviously a postcode so I checked it out with Google Maps and it takes us to Horatio House, Horatio Street, Hackney. Seems pretty random; maybe like the random conversations that form part of the street soundscape that accompanies this modern duet, performed with robust conviction by Meshach Henry and Darlyn Perez. To me this felt like the several stages of a big argument, with a number of “I love you but I hate you” moments. I admired it enormously, but I have to say I didn’t emotionally engage with it.

Ghost DancersThen came, for us, The Big One. Christopher Bruce’s Ghost Dances, danced by the (fractionally) more mature Rambert dancers, to traditional folk music from South America. Originally created as a response to the horrors of the Pinochet regime in Chile, three eerie and cruel ghost dancers stalk the land, watching and waiting for the chance to eliminate members of the community with a simple crush of the head, or a callous mimicry of their dance movement. No one is exempt from their power; but no one stays dead for ever, as the people continue to fight back to lead their ordinary lives and maybe one day overthrow the tyrants. My personal favourite section is Papel de Plata, where a chirpy young man leads some girls a merry dance by lovin’ and leavin’ them as young men are sometimes wont to do, only to be taken by the ghost dancers before he’s had a chance to ask the fourth girl out. Lord Liverpool and the Countess of Cockfosters confessed they had tears throughout Dolencias, their favourite section – but then they knew they would. The music was played live by band of six, including the traditional instruments played by Forbes Henderson, who played for the original production all those years ago, and was a member of the group Incantation, who brought the South American sound into the British charts in the 1980s.

Ghost DancesIt was a stunning performance all round, most notably from the trio of Ghost Dancers, Miguel Altunaga, Joshua Barwick and Liam Francis, who were most maliciously ruthless in their extermination of their fellow countrymen. But everyone performed with a tremendous sense of story-telling and an awful lot of heart. We all absolutely loved it.

Killer PigFinal dance of the evening, and back to the young blood of Rambert2, was the fabulously named Killer Pig, which is what you get if you push Peppa just an oink too far. A cluster of eight dancers crowd in a corner of the stage, almost like this is the area where they go to get their batteries recharged, before they’re off and cavorting all over the place, much of the time on tiptoe but moving as if they’re wading through hot mud, the girls dressed discreetly in vests and hot pants, the boys in what looked disarmingly like oversized diapers. It’s a challenge on every aspect, but the pulsating rhythm and the commitment of the dancers carries you away with them. The incessant hyperactivity was broken up a couple of times by some brief solos, one of which, by Salome Pressac, absolutely took our breath away. Much of the time Hua Han takes centre stage, and he shocks you with his extraordinarily flexible limb-work. After a while I got the sense that the dancers were trying to outdo each other by attempting parodies of classical ballet stances and elements, but this is one of those dances that if you try to follow a narrative, you’re really leading yourself up the garden path. Whatever, it went down huge in Sadler’s Wells, and we all absolutely succumbed to its flashy fun.

The thirteen dancers who make up Rambert2 are certainly a spirited, energetic and talented group; it would be fascinating to see them perform something a little more lyrical next time. Their tour (without Ghost Dances, alas) continues into next year, visiting Norwich, Exeter, Belfast, Guildford, Oxford and Winchester.

Recent production photos by Foteini Christofilopoulou.

Review – Holly Golightly, Lost Musicals at Sadlers Wells, 15th September 2013

Holly GolightlyIt’s always a pleasure to come to the Lilian Bayliss Theatre at Sadlers Wells for our annual outing to see one of Ian Marshall Fisher’s Lost Musicals. There are three on offer this year, and I chose Holly Golightly over the others because its creative team of Bob Merrill and Abe Burrows had chalked up some pretty nifty musicals in their time, and also because both of us are completely new to the whole “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” thing. Yes, we’ve neither read the book nor seen the film, so it’s about time we got to know who Holly Golightly is (was).

Holly Dale SpencerThe back story to the musical is fascinating. In its pre-Broadway try-outs it underwent numerous rewrites – nothing particularly unusual about that – but by the time it was to reach Broadway it had suffered the indignity of two book writers being sacked. Nunnally Johnson first, then Abe Burrows; to be replaced by “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”’s Edward Albee, Simone Craddocknot known for his contribution to the frothy world of musicals. After four Broadway previews, producer David Merrick pulled the show and it never saw the light of day again. Even though it was starring Mary Tyler Moore and Richard Chamberlain, Merrick realised he had a lemon. The version that Ian Marshall Fisher has resurrected has the Abe Burrows book, so it’s the version that never even got to Broadway.

Joseph Wilkins The Lost Musicals setting can expose the weaknesses of long lost Broadway shows. Unable to rely on costumes, sets and a full orchestra, one concentrates heavily on the script, the lyrics, the tunes and the story. When you find a nugget of gold, it’s a pure delight; Cole Porter’s Paris is a fine example. Jonathan Dryden Holly Golightly, on the other hand, really doesn’t work very well. Firstly, it’s very long! At a 3.30pm start we weren’t finished until 6.40pm. The tale is rather plodding and lacking in drama, although Abe Burrows’ book had some witty lines and funny moments. The songs are unmemorable and didn’t seem to illustrate the meat of the story.

Stewart Permutt Wasn’t it someone famous who said a song in a musical must carry the story forward, and that you should come out of the song at a different place from where you went into it? Actually, perhaps it was me. Anyway, that’s a major problem with this work – most of the songs are largely irrelevant to the story moving forward. The song “Travelling”, which was clearly designed to illustrate Holly’s life modus operandi, and gets an end-of-show reprise, is very lame for a signature tune. “I’ve Got a Penny”, on the other hand, nicely contrasts Holly’s fiscal status with her wonderment at the contents of Tiffany’s store. “You’ve never kissed her” sung by the hopelessly smitten Jeff is a charming ballad of unrequited love and “The girl you used to be” is a rather sad account of the love of her former husband Doc, despite the general creepiness of the whole idea of her as a teenager having married her adoptive father.

Paul LincolnI can’t say that the show helped me to understand who Holly Golightly was. I couldn’t work out if she was looking for love, or excitement, or cash, or security; maybe all of the above, maybe none. You may say that’s because she’s an enigma – but I got the feeling that it’s because the character wasn’t particularly well written. The only aspect of her character that was clear to me was that she was a nightmare neighbour. At least Jeff was surely in love with her; and as for the other gentlemen suitors, their frequently repeated lyric that they were “dirty old men looking for dirty young girls” casts a shadow on any notion of romance in this show.

Gareth DaviesAs always, Mr Marshall Fisher has assembled a cast of huge talent who look great in evening wear, seated in a semi-circle, scripts in hand, timing their joint standings-up and sittings-down to perfection. Holly Dale Spencer, as wide-eyed as she was in Kiss Me Kate, sings beautifully as Miss Golightly and it’s no surprise that she bewitches all the guys in town. Joseph Wilkins is a rather subdued Jeff, but he has a great voice; Simone Craddock, who we saw in Annie a few years ago is a slinky funky Mag Wildwood; Jonathan Dryden has a terrific, but totally irrelevant, song “Ciao, Compare” as Sally Tomato; and there’s great support from Stewart Permutt (as always), Paul Lincoln, Gareth Davies, Andy Gillies, and distinguished veteran actor Gary Raymond.

Andy GilliesBut David Merrick was right – if not a complete lemon, the show is pretty citric a lot of the time, and I guess it would have been a massive flop on Broadway. Nevertheless, it’s fascinating to watch from a historical perspective; and if you are interested in the history of musicals then you already know that all of these Lost Musicals are always worth a visit.

Gary RaymondFootnote 1: Bob Merrill’s widow was in the audience. She looked as though she really enjoyed the experience.

Footnote 2: They refuse to take interval orders for drinks in the bar before the show. And they also refuse to take them in a remarkably surly way!

Review – Flahooley, Lost Musicals, Lilian Baylis Studio, Sadlers Wells, 13th May 2012

FlahooleyIt’s Lost Musicals time again! We always like to go once a year, because no matter what show you see, it’s always a delight. In case you don’t know, every year Ian Marshall Fisher resurrects two or three old musicals that haven’t seen the light of day for donkeys’ years, and gets a bunch of talented actors and musicians to sit in a semi-circle, resplendent in evening dress, scripts in hand, Mark Warman on the piano, no scenery or props, and they enact the forgotten masterpiece. Sometimes they really are masterpieces. Other times you realise precisely why they have been forgotten. But even if they are lost because they’re not that great, the actual choice of which musicals to resurrect will always be of significant historical interest for some reason or other.

Flahooley, which opened this year’s season last Sunday, enjoyed a mere 40 or so performances on Broadway in 1951; but it was written by (inter alia) E Y Harburg, who had enjoyed great success with Finian’s Rainbow, and in his earlier days, had also written the lyrics for the songs in the film The Wizard of Oz. Being (shock horror) a socialist, Harburg had felt the rough side of the McCarthy witch hunts, and this show was a pretty thinly veiled attack on those dark days. It’s an allegorical tale of a young dreamer who creates an amazing new doll for his toy manufacturer employer, but when the market becomes flooded with them because a magic genie misinterprets his wish about how many dolls would be made (don’t ask), the dolls become valueless and are hunted down and destroyed. Are you catching some of the McCarthy allusions? There are other rather bizarre plot elements involving American-Arabian political relations, as well as the love story between Sylvester, the inventor, and Sandy.

Personally I felt the story was a little too over-the-top to take that seriously, even with the prior knowledge of Harburg’s perfectly reasonable vendetta against McCarthy. Musically, I found many of the tunes to be rather delightful, but also many of the lyrics to be syrupy beyond endurance. Still, no matter – the occasion’s the thing, and when the performers march out onto the stage and take their seats, you know you’re in for a treat.

James VaughanI was delighted to see that many of my favourite Lost Musicals regular performers were in the cast. James Vaughan has plenty of opportunities to let rip his stentorian tones in his dual roles as the March of Time voice and the Arab. Stewart PermuttHe has a face and a voice that is just perfect for both being pompous and then allowing the pomposity to be ridiculed. Stewart Permutt plays Abou Ben Atom, the genie, in his usual larger than life way, suitably camp as a row of Arabian NightMatt Zimmermann Caravanserai tents; the kindly and generous aspects of the character are well suited to his highly expressive voice; and of course his jolly mannerisms mean the show always perks up whenever he’s on. Matt Zimmermann Myra Sands(whose performances I have always enjoyed over the last 35 years – gasp!) plays Bigelow the toy manufacturer with subtle gusto. Myra Sands turns in a comic bravura performance as the witch hunting, vigilante organising Elsa Bundschlager.

Emily O’KeeffeOther very enjoyable performances came from Emily O’Keeffe’s sweet looking and sweet singing Sandy and Margaret Preece’s Princess Najla who basically has to sing a load of gibberish all the way through. That’s a take-off of the Princess Zubediyah from Kismet I thought; then I researched and found out that the musical version of Kismet came two years later. And talk about when two worlds collide – Margaret Preeceregular readers will know I’m a Eurovision aficionado; Constantine Andronikou, who is in fine voice with the role of Tonelli, has twice entered the Cyprus National Finals for the Eurovision Song Contest – in 2006 and 2008 – and indeed was one of Annet Artani’s backing singers in Athens for “Why Angels Cry”.

Constantine AndronikouIf I’m honest the show probably looked a little under-rehearsed in comparison with some of the Lost Musicals we have seen, and indeed Mrs Chrisparkle thought the musical director looked thoroughly relieved at the end of the show that they all got through it unscathed. But it is, as ever, an excellent mix of the delightful and the curious, and I congratulate Ian Marshall Fisher and his super cast for recreating this old show so vibrantly.

Review – The Most Incredible Thing, Pet Shop Boys and Javier de Frutos, Sadler’s Wells, 6th April 2012

The Most Incredible ThingWhen Mrs Chrisparkle and I first heard that there was to be a new ballet, with music by the Pet Shop Boys and choreography by Javier de Frutos, we thought “winner!” Regrettably we weren’t able to see it on its first outing at Sadler’s Wells last year. But when I saw it was coming back for a second season, I jumped at the chance to book.

Although I knew the music was to be freshly composed by the PSBs, it did get us thinking about how great a new piece you could make by concocting a dance around some of their greatest hits, as in Christopher Bruce’s Rolling Stones inspired Rooster. You can just imagine it – London – Shopping – Rent – It’s A Sin – What Have I Done To Deserve This – Heart – It Couldn’t Happen Here. Make up your own dance story with any seven or eight PSB songs of your own choice. I would like to see that happen for real.

Anyway, I digress. That – or anything like it – was not the show on offer at Sadler’s Wells last week. Let’s start with the good points. The first – and very significant – good point is that the freshly composed music by the Pet Shop Boys is excellent. From the moment it starts, it engages you in very exciting and wide-ranging musical styles. There’s electronic, pop, classical – you can even hear borrowings from Elgar. It’s music that makes you smile; it’s music that makes you want to get up and dance. (Not recommended in the stalls.)

Secondly, it benefits from high production values. It’s a great set, including a splendid backdrop evoking houses and flats extending way into the distance, and it constantly creates new areas suggesting workplaces, the palace, the TV studio, and so on. The lighting is lively and appealing, and you can see everything properly; the sound is clear, at a perfect volume, and, for those elements performed live, played faultlessly.

Aaron SillisThirdly, the execution of the dance is terrific. I would hesitate to say there was a stand-out performance as the whole cast come across as a very well balanced ensemble – but perhaps Aaron Sillis’ dance skills are particularly strong in his role as the inventor Leo.

However, I have to bring this down to earth. I’m sorry to say that both Mrs C and I found it excruciatingly dull. I confess that I didn’t realise it was an adaptation of a Hans Christian Andersen tale until a couple of days after we’d seen it, and I now accept that it’s a reasonably good reworking of the tale for a modern era; but that doesn’t prevent it from being a very silly story. I’m guessing that the aim behind the creative team was to make something enchanting, something that would tap into one’s inner child, and something that would make the story’s moral (whatever it actually is) come alive with a warm glow and a feelgood outcome. It didn’t do it for us though.

The choreography is repetitive and fails to make the story clear. If it weren’t for the synopsis in the programme I don’t think I would have followed half of what was going on. Basically, the king offers the hand of his daughter to the person who invents the most incredible thing. Leo invents an amazing clock, which wins him the contest. But the clock gets destroyed by his evil rival Karl, and it is agreed that to destroy the most incredible thing is in itself “the most incredible thing”. In Andersen’s tale, the magical characters who populate the clock come back and kill Karl, which becomes in turn even more of an incredible thing, so Leo gets the Princess. I guess that might have been OK for the 1870s but today the story is shot through with holes. For example, destroying the most incredible thing is not an invention, and the programme says it would be an invention that would win the contest. The King is all-powerful – after all, he can offer his daughter’s hand willy-nilly to whoever wins the contest – but nevertheless Karl’s few henchmen – not that scary really – prevent him from taking the Princess away by means of a tiny tussle at the edge of the stage. How likely is that?

What ought to be highlights in the story are disappointing lows. The televised contest to judge the most incredible thing has an amusing trio of video judges, whose reactions actually take your eyes off the staging of the individual attempts to win. These attempts are staged, for some reason, as silhouettes behind a screen, which has the effect of stylising them and making them remote. I can’t imagine the TV audience and indeed the judges would be impressed with that as a show; and what I think could have been an opportunity for some lavish and comic choreography was lost.

However, the big dull point is the revelation of Leo’s clock. Each of the twelve hours is acted/danced out by the characters that make up the clock – Adam, Adam and Eve, Sun Moon and Stars, Four Seasons, Five Senses, and so on. There’s no real way out of this as this is at the heart of Andersen’s original tale. Boy does it go on, though. It was about this time that Mrs C gave up the will to stay awake. You know they’re Adam and Eve, incidentally, because they have the names “Adam” and “Eve” written on their undies. I would have thought fig-leaf costumes would have been more appropriate. If you don’t mind, I really don’t want to recollect the enactments of the remaining clock numbers as life is too short. At the end of this sequence a screen bombards us with about 300 names of writers, artists and the like – for no apparent reason – but which the programme says the creative team hope we will spend the interval discussing whether or not we agree with their list of them being incredible people. No. When your strength is sapped by a dull sequence of dances all about a clock, being bombarded with names is just a violent attack on the eyes of the poor audience. Discussing them is the last thing on your mind.

Ivan Putrov Ivan Putrov makes a good Karl, looking a little like a young Wayne Sleep, but I felt he was restricted by the uninspiring, robotic choreography he was given. Clemmie Sveass’ Princess looked great and gave us flashes of what could have been a much better ballet on the few occasions when she was allowed to do some proper dancing. There’s a nice (regrettably brief) early scene where she is dancing to pop music in her bedroom, and she also has a good scene with Leo where she convinces the King to allow him to compete for her hand. As Leo, Aaron Sillas spends nearly all the show looking like a needy geek rather than the “dreamer” that the programme would have you believe he is. His dancing is fantastic, but a performer of his versatility must feel so repressed having to wear that one facial expression – startled rabbit – throughout the production.

Clemmie SveassSo what does this show tell us of the human condition? Absolutely nothing. It’s a bundle of very pretty packaging but with nothing inside. Actually, Mrs C found its saccharine sweetness thoroughly nauseating. To be fair, there was a reasonably amount of (the now statutory) whooping and cheering at the final curtain call – although the interval applause was desultory. So, as you can tell, we pretty much hated it. I have no doubt this will continue to have a life after this production – I predict the big names headlining the creative team will ensure it does good box office if it tours. If you see it, I really hope you enjoy it, like we have enjoyed other pieces by Mr de Frutos. We won’t be seeing it again.

Review – Lost Musicals, Mexican Hayride, Lilian Baylis Studio at Sadler’s Wells, 31st July 2011

Mexican HayrideJust as every year we treat ourselves to one BBC Prom Concert, we also treat ourselves to one Lost Musical. For many years now, Ian Marshall Fisher has been tirelessly reviving old American musicals that otherwise would never see the light of day, and mounting them as concert performances with actors in evening dress seated around the stage, scripts in hand, and with a man on the Joanna. It works wonderfully well as a sophisticated, informative entertainment. Michael RobertsInterest in this venture has grown to the extent that now they actually do three Lost Musicals a year; but less is more, so we choose just one to attend. This year, we chose Mexican Hayride, a 1944 confection from the piano keys of Cole Porter and the pens of Herbert and Dorothy Fields. And my guess is this year we made the wrong choice, because, basically, it’s a pretty weak musical. In a sense though that doesn’t matter. Without the opportunity to revisit an old show like this, who would have thought that a Cole Porter musical from 1944 that ran for 481 performances on Broadway would actually be a load of old tosh?

Louise GoldThe plot as such concerns a lady bullfighter in Mexico mistakenly believed to be involved in a lottery-fixing racket but whose real perpetrator is an American gangster type guy on the run. Once the story gets going, the only real progression is towards the gangster’s inevitable capture. For sure, there are some amusing characters and entertaining songs, but it really has little to say to a 21st century British audience, and the humour is disappointingly based on that rather now outdated practice of poking fun at foreign-sounding foreigners.

Stewart PermuttNevertheless, I still enjoyed it. The endearing cast perform with such heart-warming joie de vivre that any other reaction would simply be churlish. Michael Roberts reprised his gangster role from a couple of years ago, which he does with panache and amazing self-confidence. Louise Gold gave the character of Montana, the bullfighter, some warmth and personality that might not appear obvious from the text alone. Stewart Permutt, frequent Lost Musicals star, was as usual outrageously and delightfully over the top in his campery, and Wendy Ferguson, currently in Phantom, added a real star quality to the character of Lolita the night-club singer.

Wendy FergusonI’m not remotely concerned that the show wasn’t up to much. The very fact that a show that was the contemporary of Oklahoma! today looks so dated and humdrum by comparison is interesting in itself. Porter and the Fieldses are long gone, and there’s no way that this show could ever merit a proper revival. So it’s a fascinating glimpse into the past, to try to get a feeling of why the show was a success. I look forward to next year’s offerings!