Ballet Cymru meets Roald Dahl in Little Red Riding Hood and The Three Little Pigs

Lilian Baylis Theatre, Sadler’s Wells. London
November 30, 2016

Charlotte Kasner

Ballet Cymru can usually be relied upon to produce brooding tales with some gorgeous dance underpinning it, so the combination of their talents with the deliciously warped humour of Roald Dahl held great promise. Firmly in the tradition of Hillaire Belloc and Harry Graham (not least the latter’s Ruthless Rhymes for Heartless Homes), the Revolting Rhymes hone the sickly edge off modern versions of fairy tales and place them back where they belong in the dark tradition of the original Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson.

Despite some amusing moments, it turned out to be a rather underpowered evening, however. A particular disappointment is that the production piles heaps of saccharine back onto Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf not to mention fair mucking around with the text. In this they are ably abetted by Paul Patterson’s twee score, originally composed for a concert version with the verse read freely over it (apparently not to Dahl’s satisfaction). It inserts some pretty heavy-handed references to Beethoven and Mozart with no obvious aim, and why on earth the grandmother’s doorbell should resemble the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth is a mystery.

The production trips over itself from the start with a hugely over-long introduction including a lot of nonsense about how stupid wolves are. ‘As soon as Wolf began to feel that he would like a decent meal he faffed around a lot in the forest,’ doesn’t really cut the mustard, although his toying with pig and sheep first works. The cow in tutus is just bizarre.

Ballet Cymru in Little Red Riding HoodPhoto John Bishop
Ballet Cymru in Little Red Riding Hood
Photo John Bishop

We meet the grey and brown mouse-like creatures of the corps de ballet who are apparently woodland sprites, when all we want to do is cut to the chase and get to the wolf and the title character as Dahl did. It would have been much more effective if the sprites could have evoked the sinister aspects of ancient trees and actually formed a part of the forest that is sketchily suggested by Steve Denton’s designs. This might have given better justification of the opening section.

The grandmother is presented as a drunken, deaf sot (played by a male dancer) with a lot of pantomime dame-style buffooning and flashing of pantaloons. When he eventually appears, the wolf is quite charming. The gag about him trying various tricks to enter the house before just ringing the doorbell is the first really funny one of the evening. Dahl’s original “He ate her up in one big bite” is far better than the production’s ‘he couldn’t manage that so we ran around a bit before he chased grandma offstage’, which lacks imagination as well as dramatic impact. When Red Riding Hood finally shoots the Wolf and dons her “lovely, furry wolfskin coat” she is given a skimpy piece of fur fabric when something much more luscious was called for. OK, so you can’t make much of a coat out of one wolf, but some artistic licence is surely called for to illustrate Dahl’s humour?

The Three Little Pigs is much better, largely because it is presented as Dahl wrote it. Denton’s costumes are fetching, with the pigs dressed 1950s style including a preppy pig and natty pill box hats with ears for the girls. His energies lapsed when it came to the set though, with the cut-out houses showing no suggestion of being made of anything other than grey and white ply. Again there are so many more imaginative ways that the houses could have been represented which is rather the point of the piece.

There is no obvious reason why Red Riding Hood is forced to swap her pistol with a weedy-looking shotgun to dispatch wolf number two though. She comes into her own in a brief telephone conversation that hints at the 1950s romantic comedy split screen device, the two conversants being spot lit. More consistency of character would have helped as she is presented as an icky little girl in the first piece but the knowing toff that she needs to be in the second. The dancing was first-rate nevertheless, although going into a finale dance rather than a snap to black at the end when she gets her pig skin case means the joke fizzles out like a deflating balloon.

Darius James and Amy Doughty produce a fair bit of the excellent, detailed choreography that one has come to expect from Ballet Cymru but they seem to be obsessed with cartwheels and the whole evening had a feeling of hesitation and lack of confidence that was most surprising. One presumes that this has been aimed firmly at children whereas the company are undoubtedly much better when focusing on a more nuanced approach.