Everyday story of country folk

Soldier, soldier won't you marry me? Elisha Willis as Bathsheba Everdene and Iain Mackay as Sergeant Francis Troy Pictures: Bill Cooper

Far from the Madding Crowd

Birmingham Royal Ballet

Birmingham Hippodrome

****

IT is amazing just how quickly Joseph Caley is maturing as a dancer. The 25-year-old, like Robert Parker, from Hull, was just superb as Gabriel Oak.

For those who remember Alan Bates in the role in John Schlesinger's 1967 film, Caley might look a little young and fresh faced but I suspect we might still be saying that about him in years to come when he is collecting his pension. Looking younger than you are is the nearest anyone gets to eternal youth.

Caley manages to bring a great deal of animation to the character of the young farmer who loses out twice to the fickle and flirty Bathsheba Everdene, danced beautifully by Elisha Willis who seems to spend most of the night being physically abused by the men in her life – Gabriel excepted of course.

And then there is Sgt Troy, the tall, dashing, dark, devilishly handsome rake of the tale who appears to think fidelity is something to do with violins as he leaps from bed to bed in an early version of multi-tasking.

The athletic Iain Mackay revels in the role, displaying romance and passion as he woos and marries Bathsheba, then uncontrolled sorrow when he discovers Bathsheba's servant, Fanny Robin and her child, which is also his, are dead.

Jenna Roberts, who plays Fanny, has the dubious delight of spending much of act two in a coffin.

Elisha Willis's Bathsheba with Joseph Caley as the shepherd Gabriel

After supposedly committing suicide the distraught Troy then pops up in a travelling circus where he is an acrobat and then a prize fighter and finally Dick Turpin on a brilliantly novel horse which looks suspiciously like a disguised bicycle, all great fun.

This is Thomas Hardy though so fun is a bit of an accident and we are soon back to heavy duty misery as first Boldwood tries to marry Bathsheba then the supposedly dead Troy turns up only for Boldwood to settle any argument by shooting him dead, for which he is shipped off to an asylum for his pains.

Gabriel, sensibly, decides to get out before any more misfortune can befall anyone, particularly him, but in a touching final scene Bathsheba realises the error of her ways and begs him not to leave her and we end with them in each other's arms . . . ahhhhh.

All good stuff. We were advised to read the synopsis first and that was good advice. David Bintley's choreography is excellent with some brilliant folk-inspired dances by the whole company – but this is a 400 page book and that is a lot to explain just by dance.

Caley, who still looks rather as if he has had to ask his head teacher's permission to appear, has grown up considerably as a dancer and now commands a stage when he dances with that ability of making it all look so elegant and easy. Mind you, impressive dancing or not, Gabriel's chances of making Bathsheba the love of his life diminish somewhat when he loses his farm and ends up asking her for a job as a shepherd.

When Bathsheba's uncle dies she inherits his farm and decides to run it herself, making her a prize catch among the eligible, and not so eligible, bachelors of the village except for her rich neighbour William Boldwood that is, who resists her charms.

Carol-Anne Millar as the bearded lady and Tzu-Chao Chou as Grimaldi

Boldwood is elegant and aloof in the hands of Matthew Lawrence.

Once you have an idea of what is going on, the story just flows from a scene setting opener to the darker second act to the fun third with its happy ending – as long as you are not Troy or Boldwood that is.

As always the company add to the colour of the piece with crowds, a madding one we presume, circus performers such as a clown, Grimaldi played by Tzu-Chao Chou while Carol-Anne Millar pops up as a bearded lady. In the background we even had fire-eater Pat Cross . . . eating fire.

The ballet was first seen in its premiere at the Hippodrome 16 years ago, and the sets, by Hayen Griffin, are big and wonderful to give us barns, village squares, fine houses and farms all appearing by huge panels gliding in a giant frame while the lighting, by Mark Jonathan, deserved a round of applause on its own for amazing realism and a dramatic storm, all enhanced by Paul Reade's score which was given some real life by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia under conductor Paul Murphy. It is a pity that ballet only manages six performances before being put back in the BRB playbox. It deserves more. To  23-06-12.

Roger Clarke

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