Cinders is a real festive gift

Time to go: Elisha Willis as Cinderella with Artists of Birmingham Royal Ballet as the giant clock strikes midnight. Photos Bill Cooper

Cinderella

Birmingham Royal Ballet

Birmingham Hippodrome

**** 

THIS world premiere of David Bintley's classic ballet marks the BRB's 20th anniversary and proves a fitting gift to the City of Birmingham.

It is a £1 million production, and the board's chairman Professor Michael Clarke told VIP guests that by the end of its run here it will have been seen by more than 38,000 people.

And many millions more will have an opportunity to enjoy it on the small screen during the Christmas period, probably Boxing Day, on BBC 2 television after cameras have recorded the spectacular show.

Cinderella, danced to Prokofiev's beautiful music, has taken over the traditional spot filled by the magnificent Nutcracker over the years, and while the new ballet doesn't quite reach the heights of that creation, it is a worthy challenger.

GRIM STEPMOTHER

The first 30 minutes is spent in the cheerless grey kitchen of Cinderella's late father's home where she is dominated by her grim stepmother and cruel step-sisters, Skinny and Dumpy (the ugly sisters of panto land).

Perhaps a little too long is spent in the kitchen before the ballet blossoms in the Prince's palace where Skinny (Gaylene Cummerfield) and Dumpy (Carol-Anne Millar) enjoy some hilarious scenes as they attempt to catch the Prince's eye. A well-padded Carol-Anne is a real hoot...a type of Ann Widdecombe, from Strictly, in a canary yellow costume!

And what a moment when Skinny spins on the giant wooden staff of the ballroom MC . . . a ballet first pole dance, maybe?

Five ballerinas share the role of Cinderella during the run of the ballet, and on opening night (right) Elisha Willis danced superbly in the role, with Iain Mackay impressive as the Prince. Costumes are, as ever, superb.

The dramatic midnight scene, when Cinderella's beautiful ball gown returns to rags, is impressively staged, with a huge clock coming together as half a dozen spinning cogs tick off the final seconds of the spell cast by her Fairy Godmother (Victoria Marr).

Designed by John F. Macfarlane with David A. Finn's lighting and Koen Kessels conducting the Royal Ballet Sinfonia, this Cinders glows on to 12.12.10.

Paul Marston 

Meanwhile just back from the ball . . . 

*****

YORKSHIRE born Natasha Oughtred was a real Christmas star as she danced her way exquisitely through the title role of the second night of BRB's new production of Cinderella.

She always managed that look of vulnerability and sadness as we moved along through her trials and tribulations to the inevitable Freeman, Hardy and Willis shoe fitting scene when she grows into a princess, followed, one assumes, by a royal wedding.

Incidentally, one does wonder if the newspapers in fairy tale land show the same infuriating level of obsession and penchant for trivia, rumour and even realms of fantasy for their regal match as ours do.

Meanwhile Cinderella was always going to be a hard sell for the BRB. For a start it was replacing the much loved Nutcracker so found itself as the ballet equivalent of the replacement for the Morcambe and Wise Christmas Special.

The two are different, perhaps not quite chalk and cheese, but different enough to make comparisons unfair but inevitably many who have been Nutcracker regulars will do just that rather than judging Cinderella as a ballet on its own merit. That being said if a trip to the ballet at this time of year is regarded as a Christmas treat then the magic is certainly still there, just pulled out of a different hat.

The next obstacle for BRB was familiarity. Cinderella has both the advantage and disadvantage that everyone knows that tale - except many know it with a Buttons, two dames as ugly sisters and a Baron Hardup creating plenty of laughs or as a sugary Disney version.

David Bintley's new production is much darker and more sinister. He opens with Cinderella at the funeral of her real mother watched by her nasty old stepmother, (Marion Tait) and it doesn't really get much better than that for poor old Cinders until the fairy godmother  (Andrea Tredinnick) pops up in the fireplace.

Marion Tait seems to have cornered the market in ballet's real bad mommas and adds her imperious presence to Cinder's nasty stepmother

There is fun though with Samara Downs and a well padded Angela Paul superb as Skinny and Dumpy, the two mean step sisters.

Their attempts to follow the dancing master, (Mathias Dingman), and then to impress the Prince (Joseph Caley) at the ball are genuinely funny. To create comic dances in ballet takes an impressive level of skill, particularly wearing enough padding to get a job as an ice hockey goal minder in the case of Miss Paul.

Despite Bintley's darker version emphasising a tale of child abuse the pair come over as rather more remedial than evil - and ugly sisters they ain't with Skinny, in particular, proving that it might not be panto but Rodgers and Hammerstein were right - there is nothin' like a dame. 

David A Finn's lighting skillfully sets the mood for every scene while John F Macfarlane's designs are magnificent from the converted workhouse of a kitchen to the palace with sets full of moving walls and giant mirrors with backdrops of stars from distant galaxies. From solid to fluid in a few deft moves.

Most spectacular is the clock which appears at midnight - in the ballet not the theatre . . . it's not that long!!! -  huge with spinning cogs which appear in bits and fall into place to tick off the minutes to the fateful hour when it all goes belly up for Cinders.

Meanwhile, and this might be being a bit pedantic, when Cinders left her sparkly glass slipper behind as she vanished from the ball I could swear she had not been wearing them all through the old palace bop . . .

 The music is sumptuous but always sounds to me rather like incidental music to a film you half remember seeing with no clear themes to recognise or anything to hum on your way home. That being said the Royal Ballet Sinfonia, conducted by Koen Kessels, squeezed every melody and nuance from the score in a masterful rendition from the gloomy graveyard opening to the happy couple riding off into the beautifully staged and animated sun . . . sunrise? 

Doesn't anyone read Westerns round here . . . ?

There was no hint of a standing ovation on this second night but there was sustained, generous applause and the performance of Cinders and her sisters alone deserved at least that. The production has cost £1 million and on this showing it was money well spent. If you can't get to see it than catch it on BBC2 over Christmas.

Roger Clarke 

A promise of Magic - interview with Paul Grace, BRB Technical Director

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