An everyday ballet of country folk

Spinning a yarn: Lise (Nao Sakuma) has not quite got the hang of this spinning wheel lark yet as Widow Simone (David Morse) can testify . . . if she is not garroted first. Pictures Bill Cooper.

La fille mal gardée

Birmingham Royal Ballet

Birmingham Hippodrome

*****

NO swans - all right a few chickens but it is a farmyard so what do you expect? No spirits, fairies or faeries as the ballet cognoscenti would have it, no witches, sorcerers, evil queens, trolls – just a lot of fun and an everyday  tale of country folk – a bit like The Archers set to music.

It is a simple tale of a young girl, Lise, who falls for a simple, poor farmer Colas, but her widowed mother, Simone, has higher designs namely to wed her daughter off to the son of Thomas, a  rich vineyard owner. The son Alain is not exactly a catch though with his main job prospects seemingly being to find a village in need of an idiot.

So Lise has to appease her mother, avoid being lumbered with Alain and make sure she ends up with Colas – a simple romantic comedy in three acts.

This is one of the oldest ballets in the modern repertoire, dating back to 1789 and this version is the celebrated  1960 production choreographed by Sir Frederick Ashton  for the Royal Ballet.

The original ballet by Jean Dauberval  was set to a score of a random collection of 55 French airs and folk tunes by that well known composer Anon so Ashton  worked with composer John Lanchbery on a new score based on the 1828 score of Ferdinand Hérold which in turn was based on the music from the 1789 premiere. So now you know how we got here.

Nao Sakuma who shows another side to her extensive repertoire as Lise full of fun and humour

The ballet predates the classical Russian romantic ballets of the likes of Swan Lake by some 200 years so there is not a tutu in sight and some of the dancing has a more rustic flavour with Widow Simone, the ballet equivalent of the panto dame, played with a great sense of fun by David Morse who produces a skilful and amusing clog dance along with some pantomime chases.

We have an 18th century style Morris dance as well as a Maypole dance  – told you it was Archers: The Ballet – as well as the cockerel and his four chickens strutting their stuff .

The dances have a freshness and party piece air about them  such as the clever dance with Lise and Colas and a 20ft ribbon which gives us a cat's cradle which gets a round of applause all on its own.

We even had a Shetland pony, with the rather posh name of Perigrine, who appeared from time to time pulling the stars around in a cart looking very docile - or bored – depending upon your, and his, point of view.

I am reliably informed Perigrine, who was rather gorgeous, had his own bed at the side of the stage – prima donna or what – but he got a big 'ahhhh' every time he appeared on stage and I am sure had he still been around for the finale he would have got the biggest cheers of the night.

Sadly though Perigrine does not appear in the third act so, as a true theatrical, he presumably gallops or trots off  to the Nags Head or wherever he goes for his happy hour of oats. He needs to keep his strength up for two shows a day for the rest of the week.

Iain Mackay mixes his athletic power with subtlety and a sense of humour as Colas

Ponies on stage always add that expectant touch of impending amusement or, if you have to dance in it, disaster to proceedings as everyone waits to see if nature will call  but Peregrine was very well behaved - although with a name like that would you expect anything less?

Meanwhile back to the story and the love triangle of this entertaining tale on the opening night were Iain Mackay as Calas,  Nao Sakuma as Lise and Robert Gravenor as the dim son Alain.

Never enter into an arm-wrestling contest with the athletic Mackay. His leaps and jumps are impressive enough but his lifts are something else not only for their duration, and some are exceptionally long, but their execution. There is a one armed lift above his head that made even my shoulder ache.

We all know Nao has pretty well everything with grace, elegance, technique and an ethereal beauty on stage – every little girl's vision and dream of a ballerina – but as Lise she shows a wonderful penchant for comedy and acting, opportunities perhaps not as forthcoming in the woe is me roles she takes on in the likes of Swan Lake.

Trying to break up the happy couple is Gravenor . It takes great skill and ability to do silly dances well and he manages it with aplomb looking like a long lost Marx brother. There is one dance incidentally involving all three principals where simplicity and amusement value mask a high level of skill and timing as Mackay appears between them at every pause in the music.

The simpleton Alain is barmy rather than baddy though so you even feel a little sorry for him when he doesn't get the girl in the end – oh yes we even have a happy ending with no tragic deaths - but at least he has his brolly to keep him . . . well dry. Not really warm but you can't have everything can you?

Peregrine, the real star of the show, by a short head . . . with some of his supporting cast, Lise and Widow Simone, riding on his success.

Behind it all is the excellent Royal Ballet Sinfonia under Philip Ellis. There are no tunes you will be whistling on the way home to the station, it is not that sort of score, but the music is pleasant and pastoral while the lighting, by Peter Tergen, is excellent.

The designs, by the way, are by Sir Osbert Lancaster who died 25 years ago this year. His designs are bright and colourful and big, so big in fact the the old widow will need scaffolding to get her washing down from the kitchen roof. 

You might not be whistling any tunes on your way home but you will be smiling after what is a highly entertaining, funny ballet, beautifully danced with an easy to follow story. It is simply charming and even has a flock of chickens and Perigrine to boot. What more could you ask for.

Incidentally it is not a bad introduction for ballet newcomers. It might not be as spectacular or have the beauty of a Swan Lake but it is light, has an easy to follow narrative with characters anyone can recognise, is not too long and is unbridled fun.

La Fille runs until 05-03-11 with matinees on March 3, 4 and 5.

Roger Clarke

Bottom line: La Fille mal gardée (The wayward daughter in English) was obviously written before the European directive on smacking children . . . as Widow Simone (David Morse) attempts to make a point to her daughter Lise (Nao Sakuma)

Meanwhile down in the bottom meadow . . .

*****

THIS is a simple story of country folk, a lovable ballet without kings and queens but packed with a right royal helping of humour

You know you are in for something special when the opening scene involves four dancers dressed as hens and one as a cockerel, and later a genuine tiny white pony pulls a trap containing two of the stars around stage.

But the real story here is very much a human one....farmer's pretty daughter Lise falling madly in love with a handsome, penniless young farmhand, but maybe heading for heartbreak because her mum wants her hitched to the simpleton son of a wealthy vineyard owner.

Colas, the man of every girl's dreams, ay least those involving cold sweats and irrational fear, played with blundering charm by  Robert Gravenor

That's where the title of the ballet comes in. La Fille Mal Gardee roughly means wayward daughter, and Lise, beautifully played by Nao Sakuma, is determined to pursue her romance with Colas (Iain Mackay).

The pair dance superbly together, at one point Mackay holding Sakuma aloft with just his right arm, and they deserved the standing ovation received from a section of the first night audience.

There is almost a pantomime dame, too, with David Morse as Lise's mother, the widow Simone, delivering a remarkable clog dance and becoming involved in some hilarious incidents. And what a splendid performance from Robert Gravenor as rich man's son Alain, said to be as attractive as a potato and smart as a turnip! He is a sparkling clown.

Directed by David Bintley and danced to Ferdinand Herold's music, the ballet is set in the countryside of 18th century France. Philip Ellis conducts the Royal Ballet Sinfonia. To 05.03.11

Paul Marston

Home  Hippodrome  Reviews A-Z Reviews by Theatre