New Victoria Theatre, Woking
September 21, 2019
A happy family playing by a river in a sunny scene backed by a field of yellow flowers certainly makes a change from the usual grim, grey, graveside Cinderella prologue. But then David Nixon’s production for Northern Ballet is no normal Cinderella. It’s no normal prologue either, the setting up of the tale and events leading up to the accidental shooting by a hunting party of Cinderella’s father as he tried to recover her shawl from across a stream all taking a good fifteen minutes.
By now, it should go without saying that Nixon has parked the usual Prokofiev score in favour of a new one specially commissioned from that modern master of listenable to ballet music, Philip Feeney. It is as atmospheric and tuneful as you would expect; and while it is new, listen carefully and I’ll swear you can hear occasional references to his previous music for Christopher Gable’s delicious take on the story.
When the action does shift to below stairs at the family home, there’s not much grey in view either. Cinderella (played delightfully by Antoinette Brooks-Daw) may be dressed dowdier than her sisters but her outfit of autumnal rusts is far from drab. She’s also a rather happy, smiling character, despite the presence of her stepmother.
Rather than Cinderella having to rely on a fairy godmother, Nixon has her father reappear as an exotic magician. Mlindi Kulashe oozed charm and good-humour. It’s a clever move and one that makes absolute sense narratively. By shifting the action to Russia, that reappearance can also take place in the perfect setting of a colourful street fair complete with acrobats, a few nifty conjuring tricks and (perhaps somewhat bravely these days) a dancing bear.
If that recalls Petrushka, later there’s a nod towards Les Patineurs in The Crystal Lake, a skating ballet on an ice-covered lake. Full of skimming chassées, pirouettes and low lifts, it’s the latter is one of the ballet’s highlights. Both give valuable extra opportunities for the corps.
Minju Kang was all Cruella de Vil as the controlling stepmother who turns on Cinderella considering her partly responsible for her father’s death. With her pursed lips and menacing glares, she was truly delightfully nasty. Intimidating in the extreme, she is given extra force by having her near-constantly on pointe, making her loom above everyone else.
Far from being nasty, one senses the stepsisters (Kyungka Kwak and Ayami Miyata) do still have sisterly feelings for Cinderella; there’s a real shared joy at their ball invitations, for example. And they are not even remotely pantomime-comic, for which a million thanks.
Act I is hugely entertaining. Act II, which generally reverts to the more familiar story, is less satisfactory. The story seems to rush along even more than previously. Perhaps that’s why the narrative has a few hiccups. It’s never explained, for example, why Cinderella has to run away from the ball. There’s no warning about what will happen by the magician beforehand, and we don’t even hear any chimes. She just ups and leaves. The biggest issue is the lack of much in the way of love between Cinderella and the Prince (Sean Bates), even at the end, which as nicely understated as it is rather lacks that special ‘something’.
Nixon’s Prince may be radiantly good-looking (and one suspects, knows it), but he’s also very uncomplicated and shallow, something of a snob, and unable initially to even countenance the idea that Cinderella could possibly be the owner of the shoe, although he does warm to the idea eventually.
The costumes (by Nixon and Julie Anderson) are sumptuous; perfect for the time and period. Cinderella’s frock for the ball is especially dazzling. The same cannot be said of the Duncan Hayler’s set which too often looks cheap and flimsy. And while the transforming of the kitchen range into a sleigh is rather neatly done, having Cinders’ name in lights along the side is tacky in the extreme. Like every child in the audience, I did rather like the three giant huskies brought into service to pull it, however.
With this Cinderella, David Nixon dares to be different, and for that we should be thankful. It’s certainly colourful, and has some lovely ensemble scenes, but just a little bit more of that loving feeling would be nice.
Cinderella continues on tour to June 2020. Visit www.northernballet.com for dates and venues.