Category Archives: Dance

The Most Incredible Thing, Sadler’s Wells

It takes a lot to get me to go to the ballet. It’s not that I don’t like it, exactly: more that there’s always something else I’m more excited about seeing. But the promising combination of a story by Hans Christian Andersen and music by the Pet Shop Boys lured me in and I’m glad it did, because whenever I go to the ballet I remember that dance can be a startlingly alien and riveting experience which is completely unlike anything else at all.

I didn’t know the story before I went in, which is something that always worries me a bit when it comes to ballet: I still remember the time I saw Coppélia and didn’t realise that Swanhilde was pretending to be the doll in the second half, resulting in all sorts of confusion until I went away and read a synopsis of the plot. The Most Incredible Thing gets around this problem by cheating slightly and introducing words, which mostly works although it occasionally seems heavy-handed, but it did at least mean that I always knew what was happening.

Mostly, though, what surprised me – in a good way – about it was how traditional it was. I was expecting something avant-garde and experimental, but despite the lavish use of special effects, this was very much a figurative show rather than an abstract one, with proper sets and costumes, making it the kind of ballet you could take a child to (though nobody did on the night I went), which is my favourite sort, my knowledge and understanding of dance being limited to things I have learned from watching Strictly Come Dancing.

But it’s the very unfamiliarity of ballet that I find so engaging: I look at the bodies and I can’t begin to imagine how they do what they do, or what the people who live inside them must be like the rest of the time. You feel you can get the measure of actors, or singers, but never dancers. This was made especially explicit during the second act, which is a stunning piece of kaleidoscopic choreography where bodies become detached from their human life entirely and turn into mechanical elements of a vast machine whose music and imagery is still whirring around my brain a week later. I can’t begin to describe it so I shan’t try, but it was beautifully and cleverly done, and it was that section, rather than any of the narrative segments, that stood out as the highlight.

That said, the dancers playing the main characters gave an engaging and watchable performance, and the choreography by Javier De Frutos gave them each the space to develop personalities of their own (I especially liked the baddie, although the swaying, rippling princess is the real star of the piece).

This was a ten-night run which sold out before it started, but I hope it comes back for a longer season at Sadler’s Wells (which is, incidentally, one of London’s few well-designed theatres, where you can see the stage unobstructed from nearly every seat). And when it does, you should definitely go and see it, even if you think you don’t like ballet.*

* Though possibly not if you don’t like the Pet Shop Boys, because the music sounds a LOT like the Pet Shop Boys, despite the lack of the distinctive keyboard sound which is officially called “orchestra hit” even though I always think it’s called “electro bang”, which is a much more appropriate name for it. But if you don’t like the Pet Shop Boys then you and I will never see eye to eye anyway, I’m afraid.


Posted by on March 29, 2011 in Dance


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Sweet Charity, Theatre Royal, Haymarket

Sweet Charity features three imperishable Broadway standards: Big Spender, If My Friends Could See Me Now and The Rhythm of Life.  A half dozen other songs are quite as good as these, and the music throughout is varied, tuneful and witty.  It has a darting script by Neil Simon.  Its original choreographer was Bob Fosse, who also made his film debut as director of the screen version.  This is quite a pedigree.  So why isn’t Sweet Charity better regarded?

Perhaps there’s a certain protectiveness of the source material, Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria, or perhaps it’s that shorn of the darker setting and plot of Fellini’s film the ending comes as a damp squib – rather than as one woman’s narrow triumph over a wicked world.  Or maybe it’s that title.  Sweet Charity’s heroine is called Charity, and she’s really sweet!  This isn’t quite John Singleton’s Poetic Justice (whose heroine, Justice, writes poetry), but there’s something about a punning eponymous title that smacks of both “Will this do?” and a presumptuous “Yes it bloody will.”

The current run at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket is a transfer of Matthew White’s Menier production of last year.  The Theatre Royal isn’t exactly the West End’s most atmospheric or friendly venue, and it also lacks an orchestra pit.  This means that the (excellent) band is crammed to the back of the stage.  Tim Shorthall’s set makes a minor virtue of this by having the band corralled together in an authentic 60s Columbia-style recording booth, but the problem with this is that it greatly reduces the depth of the stage.  When the big song and dance numbers kick off, the result is a lot of people jigging about in the same few square feet.  And when the solo numbers start, the result is if anything even more cramped: when Charity runs towards the audience to sing about her good fortune (there’s a lot of this) she’s only really running towards the audience because there’s nowhere else to go.  And the run only lasts about three steps.

Charity is played with some gusto by Tamzin Outhwaite.  Not the world’s strongest singer, she is exposed a little by the sheer number of songs that require her to stand on her own in the middle of the stage and emote.  She makes up for this in the big choreographed numbers, however, and she fairly flings herself at every scene.  She kind of needs to, too, because Sweet Charity’s plot is, at best, flimsy, and by the end seems a puzzle of half-completed intentions.

This has something to do with the musical’s attitude to the film it’s supposed to be adapting.  In Nights of Cabiria, the heroine is a prostitute rather than a night-club dancer as Charity is here.  Both film and musical start with the heroine being pushed into a river and robbed of her purse, but where the film ends with a violent intensification of that first scene, the musical ends with a polite and near nonsensical lovers’ tiff.  Charity dusts herself off after this escapade and continues on her perky way, but we’ve already seen worse happen to her, so the ending barely registers as an ending.

Still, Sweet Charity was well worth reviving and is well worth seeing for the songs and the choreography alone.  In its life as a pop standard, Big Spender has mostly been belted out like a command; but here it’s played as the bored, professional come-on of the bored, professional courtesan.  Stephen Mears’s choreography throughout is a subtle modernisation of Fosse’s original dances, and it adds an almost subversive depth to what is otherwise a collection of airbubble scenes connected by sheer will.


Posted by on May 4, 2010 in Comedy, Dance, Music, Theatre


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Legally Blonde, Savoy Theatre

Before I begin, I should confess that I watched Legally Blonde after several glasses of very nice white wine. I shan’t over-apologise for that, though, because I think that might just be the perfect state in which to see it.

The good stuff first: it’s very energetic, and picks you up and drags you along with it at a lively pace from the first minute. The cast are mostly rather stage-schoolish, but that’s what you need for a show like this, which doesn’t have individual stand-out musical numbers or very much light and shade, but rather blinds you for two hours with a lightning bolt of pure exuberance. Almost everyone works incredibly hard, because most of the characters have to act, sing and dance their (pink) socks off.

Sheridan Smith, as our heroine Elle Woods, has a lovely singing voice (I saw her a couple of years ago in Little Shop of Horrors and she made a perfect Audrey) and is a good comic actress with excellent timing and physical presence. I’m not sure she quite has the innocence that would have made me sympathetic to the character enough to mind about what happens to her, but as I said, it’s more about the spectacle than the story, so that probably doesn’t matter.

For me, the surprise star of the evening was Jill Halfpenny as Elle’s beleaguered  friend Paulette the hairdresser, whom I found instantly more believable and likeable and affecting than Elle or anyone else. I was so taken with her that I even copied her outfit the next day, though you probably don’t need to know that.

There are some fairly gaping plot holes, which may be explained in the film but since I haven’t seen it I can’t say. Again, it doesn’t really matter, but I wonder that it wasn’t picked up on in the previews and amended. I shan’t spoil anything here in any case. It was a fun night out, and perfect for a hen party, which coincidentally was what we were.

In summary: exactly as good as it needs to be.

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Posted by on April 20, 2010 in Comedy, Dance, Music, Theatre


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Swan Lake, Sadler’s Wells

I think I’m probably the last person in London to see this. I saw Matthew Bourne’s Nutcracker a couple of years ago and was charmed but not overwhelmed, but the Nutcracker is quite a frothy piece so I wasn’t sure how Matthew Bourne would approach the tragic elements of Swan Lake.

The opening act starts in his kitsch, MGM musical aesthetic – which is enhanced as the women dancers wear heeled shoes rather than pointe ones. The story is about a Prince in a gilded cage, danced by Christopher Marney, following his mother the Queen through the formalities of royal life. He meets a girl – pink miniskirt, blonde, with a spray-on tan – and sneaks off to nightclubs, but nothing cures his melancholy. One of the funniest bits of the show is at a Royal Command Performance of the ballet: on one side of the stage Bourne parodies the conventions of classical ballet, with a chorus of four, an enormously camp Alpine woodsman hero and a heroine in a fluffy sylphides dress; on the other, the social-climbing girlfriend appals the Queen by laughing, dropping her sweets out of the Royal box and answering her mobile phone.

In despair, the Prince steals away to the park to drown himself, and at this point he encounters the swans. The all-male swan chorus are stunning: sexy, wild and amazingly swan-like. A far cry from the serene chorus of a traditional Swan Lake, these swans look as though they might truly be able to break your arm. Their leader, danced by Richard Winsor, is the wildest of them all, a symbol of the freedom and passion that the Prince is denied.

The pas-de-deux between Swan and Prince is thrilling. The traditional male-female pas-de-deux puts the female in a position of powerlessness: standing en pointe, being rotated slowly by the man. Here every turn is done barefoot and with obvious exertion. The duet moves from sexual encounter, to tussle, to the lift in which the Prince clings to the Swan like a child,, knees tucked in, going beyond the traditional delicate powerlessness of the ballerina into an obvious and touching vulnerability.

In Act 2, the Royal ball is disrupted by the Swan, now clad in skin-tight black leather, who dances with the women, ignoring the Prince, and finally seducing the Prince’s mother. The Prince produces a gun and fires wildly, wounding one of the guests. He is put to bed – the scene in which he is sedated by a doctor and his mother is a sinister and elegant bit of shadow play with the lighting – and the swans return to him in his dreams. But this time they are nightmare swans, wild and angry, coming between him and his lover. The final pas-de-deux between Swan and Prince is part battle, part love dance as the lovers try to reach each other across the defensive, hissing swans. The Prince dies and is lifted on to his bed as the swans vanish.

Matthew Bourne’s use of Tchaikovsky’s music is one of the most impressive aspects of the ballet, turning the classical ballet into a poignant story about fame, love and the isolation of celebrity.


Posted by on January 28, 2010 in Dance


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