Review – Sleeping Beauty, The Australian Ballet, Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House, 16th December 2015

Sleeping BeautyIt was fifteen years ago that Mrs Chrisparkle and I last went to the Sydney Opera House. We were in Australia to celebrate the marriage of her brother, Lord Leumeah, to the Countess of Camden. One evening, whilst they were enjoying their nuptials, we snuck off to the Opera House and saw the Australian Ballet perform The Merry Widow, and damn fine they were too. Fifteen years on, we found ourselves once again in a land down under, and, joined by my Lord and the Countess, now accompanied by their daughter and heir, the little Marchioness of Minto, we took the opportunity to return to the stunning setting of the Opera House – this time to see the Australian Ballet take on Tchaikovsky’s 1890 hit, The Sleeping Beauty.

Australian BalletIf you’ve been to the Opera House before, you know that one of the things you can do to make your evening extra special is book dinner in the Bennelong Restaurant, the fine-dining establishment that nestles at the front of the theatre, basically housed underneath the first nun in the scrum, if that’s how you characterise the building. The five of us enjoyed its pre-theatre sumptuousness, including a rather delectable McLaren Vale Somerled Shiraz, served in an elegant decanter. I had the carrot salad, roast lamb and the pine-lime, all of which tasted much more spectacular than they sound. They did however let themselves down by refusing to mix and match two items from the children’s menu onto the same plate. The Marchioness, like many a six-year-old, is quite a fussy eater. “The chef isn’t prepared to do it”, our waiter informed us. Pity. As a result, I wasn’t prepared to tip as generously as I normally would.

Amber ScottBut what of the show? This is one of those grand productions that has been formulating in the back of someone’s head for decades. The someone in question is David McAllister, Artistic Director of the Australian Ballet, who’s worked with the company, man and boy, on and off since 1983. Somewhat extraordinarily, this is the first full length work that he has choreographed for the company – in combination with the traditions of Petipa, of course. In the programme he explains that if he had commissioned anyone else to choreograph it, he would have been constantly interrupting and seeking changes, so clear is his vision for exactly how this work should look. So he had no choice but to do it himself. The production started in Melbourne, moved on to Perth, and finally had a three-week sell-out residency at the Sydney Opera House, closing on 16th December, which, as luck would have it, was the date on which we saw it.

Amber Scott againConsidering Australia is an innovative, “new” country, it’s maybe a surprise, but you can’t get more traditional than the Australian Ballet. They employ every classical trick in the book to keep alive the old performance traditions of Russian ballet down under: elaborate curtain calls, gentlemanly hand-waving any time a prima ballerina comes within a five feet radius of an inactive member of the corps de ballet, prolonged sequences of mime whenever they need to expand on plot development (a frown and two crossing hands means “no”; pointedly tugging at your ring finger means “I want to marry your daughter/princess/swan/nymph”.

Kevin JacksonBut they carry it off spectacularly well. A full, resonant orchestra rings out Tchaikovsky’s great tunes under the baton of Nicolette Fraillon (who at a distance looks alarmingly like Nicola Sturgeon). Simply magnificent sets and costumes by Gabriela Tylesova, where no extravagance is ever considered an extravagance too far, grace the stage. The set even gets its own round of applause at the beginning of Act Three.

Benedicte BemetAnd then there is the dancing, of course. For the most part, it’s exquisitely beautiful. In our performance, Princess Aurora was danced by Benedicte Bemet, a coryphée, and she’s certainly going places. It’s a demanding role and she danced with skill, grace and beauty throughout. Her Désiré was Kevin Jackson, one of the company’s Principal Artists, and he invested the role with great character and athleticism, really bringing the house down in his third act pas de deux. But for me the star of this show was Amber Scott, another Principal Artist, dancing the role of the Lilac Fairy. Elegance just radiates from her. I doubt she could open a tin of peas without doing it gorgeously. She’s just one of those dancers you just can’t take your eyes off. I was also really impressed with the pas de deux by Chengwu Guo and Ako Kondo as Bluebird and the Princess Florine. The five fairies who dominate the prologue were also danced with enormous grace and beauty. From my vantage point in the circle I couldn’t quite identify who was dancing which role – but I particularly liked the dancer in ice blue and the one in dark red. Another was dressed in flamingo pink and green, and when she whizzed around, she looked like a watermelon in the blender.

Gillian RevieThe Sleeping Beauty Waltz is, naturally, a highlight; danced, traditionally, with floral garlands, and I must say it was a stunning sight: beautiful control, sheer elegance. Our mean and nasty Carabosse was danced by Gillian Revie, a guest artist whom I remember from her appearances in the Royal Ballet in the 1990s. The dancers who surrounded her costumed as rats gave great support, but my only criticism of the dancing would be concerning some members of the corps de ballet. The girls were great, but some of the guys were rather heavy on the crash landings from time to time – I know, I’m very demanding. Watching the entire ballet, you realise that the drama comes to an end all too soon with the conclusion of Act Two;Garland scene Act Three is just an excuse for celebratory dancing for Aurora’s Wedding. This gives the ballet as a whole a slightly unbalanced feel – and with two twenty-minute-plus intervals, the show stretches out to almost three hours, which is a lot for a six-year-old Marchioness to take, not to mention two British tourists suffering from jetlag. But it really was a stunningly beautiful production, and the Opera House audience went wild with appreciation.

Chengwu Guo and Ako KondoAs implied earlier, the wine selection at the Bennelong Restaurant is pretty damn amazing. Buoyed up with confidence, I ordered a couple of glasses of fizz for the second interval from the circle bar. Oh dear. Any memories of the lavish, elegant fruit notes that might have lingered from our dinnertime Shiraz were eradicated by that glass of paint stripper. Lord Leumeah had a glass of white. Grudgingly, he described it as adequate, by which I interpreted that it was far from adequate. How very odd that the Opera House puts its inestimable name and splendid reputation to such lousy house wines?

Review – Sleeping Beauty, Derngate, Northampton, 12th December 2013

Sleeping BeautyFor eleven months of the year, when you take children to the theatre you always remind them to be quiet during the show; if they have any questions to save them for the interval; not to fidget or kick the seat in front of them; and never to take a fluorescent windmill into the auditorium and set it whirring for two hours. During the other month, however, all bets are off, and you encourage them to shout, chat, jump up and down, and whirr. No wonder some kids grow up confused.

Linda LusardiAny children you take to see Sleeping Beauty at the Derngate (on till 5th January 2014) will be in for a real treat. All the usual perfect panto components are there: a dame, a villain, a village idiot, and a fairytale prince and princess. There’s competitive singing, a messy kitchen scene to include porridge down the underpants, a high-tec ghost, loads of “oh yes there is, oh no there isn’t”, a considerable chance of getting water sprayed on you, and some actual real magic too.

Sam KaneThe real stand-out moments of this production though are the two 3D sequences, one in each half. They are completely spectacular. The last time we saw 3D in a panto was at Birmingham about four years ago. I can tell you the 3D aspect of this show absolutely knocks spots off that production. It’s vivid, scary, exciting and funny; and the live action of the cast at the same time integrates perfectly with the visual spectacle. Through the 3D specs, the stage looks so huge and the actors appear so tiny in comparison, it really gives an incredible feeling of power and adventure. I won’t spoil the surprise by telling you what’s in store in 3D-land, but it’s really thrilling. To be honest some of the younger kids found it a little bit scary. I was sitting next to a little girl who up till then was incredibly confident, chatting away to me and finding the show hilarious; but as soon as the 3D came on she fled for the safety of her mother’s lap. There was a little boy sat in front of Mrs Chrisparkle who was so shocked by the 3D apparitions she thought the poor lad was going to need hospitalising. It’s really impressive technology and great fun. They’re comfortable 3D specs too; it was very easy to wear them over my normal glasses. I can only think that the audience must look hilarious from the stage during these sequences though, as we scramble around in our seats reacting to what’s in front of us!

Andy JonesIf I have a small criticism of the show (and I guess I do), it would be that perhaps the script was not quite as funny as some of the other recent pantomimes we have seen at the Derngate. It was thoroughly entertaining for the kids but we felt there could have been just a few more of those clever lines that appeal to the adults as well. Having said that, there were some great up-to-date references to Joey Essex and Nigella Lawson to which you give a sharp intake of breath at their irreverence; and the show is performed with such a sense of fun and attack that you still have a terrific time.

Shinead ByrneLinda Lusardi as the wicked fairy Carabosse makes a great villain; perhaps the glint in her eye is more knowing sexiness than evil witch, but, on the whole, that’s Not A Bad Thing. There’s a sequence where she’s going to try to make one of the male characters fall in love with her: “oh yes I am”, “Oh no you’re not” scream 1000 kids; “Oh yes I am” she says as she flashes a glimpse of fishnet beneath the gown”; “Oh yes you are” I assert, resisting the peer-pressure of 999 fellow audience members. There’s a lot of fun to be had with knowing that Miss Lusardi is married to Sam Kane, who plays Oddjob, with his nausea-stifling, child-like repulsion at the prospect of a spot of Castle Forest intimacy with her. He and Andy Jones as Muddles make an excellent double act – Mr Kane the straight man and Mr Jones the buffoon. Whether it be challenging each other to a duel, or a splattering of custard pie goo down the trousers, they clearly have a lot of fun doing it, and we have a lot of fun watching it.

Alex Jordan-MillsShinead Byrne is a rather stunning Princess Beauty with a superb singing voice, and Mrs C assures me that Alex Jordan-Mills as Prince William also scored high on the eye-candy rating. Together they’re going to have the most beautiful children. They sang together really well too – achieving lovely harmonies well in excess of the standard that you might otherwise expect in a panto. Phil Hitchcock is an endearing King Stephen who brings real magic to the stage with some brilliant tricks – I’m always a sucker for magic. Even though we were fairly close to the stage in row E, I couldn’t see how any of his illusions worked. It’s a nice touch to have the wicked fairy defeated by the power of good magic too – very appropriate!

Phil HitchcockKim Wall appears as Nurse Dolly. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I opened the programme to read that he was playing this part as he has long been a favourite actor of mine. He was superb in Laurie Sansom’s Ayckbourn season at the Royal in Northampton in 2009 (before I started blogging); and actually, way back in 1979 when I was a first year student I was invited to watch a rehearsal of a production by a young professional company of Steven Berkoff’s “East” in Oxford so that I could write up an article and review for a student newspaper; and it was a young Mr Wall who played the part of Les. I remember being so impressed by his attack and charisma in that play. I’m not sure if he has played a Dame before, but he looked superbly hideous, had a warm connection with the audience and was full of fun and flirtatiousness.

Kim WallIt’s all backed by a happy looking bright ensemble of dancers and singers, and the children from the Mayhew School of Dance were a delight. It’s a really entertaining show, with some great performances and amazing effects. The production values in the show are top quality, from the sets, to the band, to the costumes and of course the superb 3D. Don’t miss it, you’ll love it! Long live panto!

Review – Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty, Milton Keynes Theatre, 30th January 2013

Sleeping BeautyA new Matthew Bourne production always has the promise of greatness. It was at the Wycombe Swan that we first saw his Adventures in Motion Pictures’ Swan Lake, one Saturday matinee in 1995, and we were electrified by it. I think we saw it three or four times within that first year, and whenever it comes round, as it often does, it’s our sworn duty to go and see it again. Since then we’ve seen Cinderella, Nutcracker, Highland Fling, The Car Man, Play Without Words, Dorian Gray, and last year’s Early Adventures, all of which are somewhere on the scale between very good and excellent. And now we have Sleeping Beauty, which to my mind is the nearest he has come to recreating the theatrical thrill that is his Swan Lake.

Christopher MarneyGood to see Mr Bourne is still working with his tried and tested colleagues. One glance at the programme and you are reassured to see that Lez Brotherston has designed the set and costumes. The sets are amazing – opulent and classy, and still leaving a large central space for all the dancing to take place. Particularly stunning are the house and garden scene for Act Two and the neon lit wedding reception for Act Four. The costumes are splendid too – especially outstanding are those for the good fairies and Carabosse. The puppetry to convey the baby Aurora is also brilliant: subtly done, remarkably realistic and very funny.

Chris Trenfield One of the problems I have with some of Mr Bourne’s works is that, for contemporary dance productions, sometimes they’re just isn’t enough choreography. Well he’s certainly put that right with Sleeping Beauty. It’s jam-packed full of dance; and one of the finest sequences comes quite early on with a remarkable pas de six performed by Count Lilac and the five fairies. Lively, exciting, dramatic and also humorous, the variations are all superbly danced and you can’t help but grin from ear to ear whilst watching.

Hannah Vassallo A very small quibble – it’s hard to tell from the programme who is performing which role as you have a choice of two or three performers for each character and no information insert to guide you for that individual performance. So in my mentions of any particular dancers in this blog, I sincerely hope I have allocated the correct dancer to the correct role – I am relying on their bio photos and my mental images of what they looked like! I’m pretty sure our Count Lilac was Christopher Marney, recently a well deserved nomination for outstanding performance in Modern Dance in the National Dance Awards. He was excellent in this Act One pas de six, but also fantastic in the climactic assault on the wicked Caradoc at the end, even if his masked appearance with Leo (Chris Trenfield at our performance) making their way to the wedding reception, did put me slightly in mind of the 1960s Batman and Robin. I was also a little put off by the visual tableau just before the interval when it looked like we’d gone all Transylvanian. Mr Marney looked highly creepy in this scene, and I thought Leo’s transformation into a good fairy could have been done a little more subtly.

Ben BunceChris Trenfield is great as Leo – he does some wonderful solos and has a fantastic rapport with Hannah Vassallo who played Aurora when we saw it. His highly athletic dancing, dressed as a working gamekeeper whilst everyone else is in their fancy garden party whites, is visually outstanding and Mr Trenfield really gets into the rough-and-ready aspect of the character. The only duff note of the whole evening for us was the step sequence depicting Leo going on an interminably long walk to find Aurora.Luke Murphy It was funny at first, but then it just went on too long – and choreographically, it’s not very interesting. Miss Vassallo was a superb Aurora; cheeky, slightly tomboyish when we first see her; amusingly checking out all the suitors at the garden party, and her dancing with Leo in that scene was exquisite. She looks perfect for the role too – precisely how one would imagine Sleeping Beauty to look in real life.

Katy LowenhoffCasting a severe spell over the garden party scene is Caradoc, the nasty son of the dark fairy Carabosse, both played by Ben Bunce (I think) in the production we saw. His appearance as Carabosse in the first scene is thrilling. He looks like the most malicious drag queen diva bullying his demands on the ineffectual King and Queen, almost as if he were a Beardsley creation (Aubrey, not Peter). Daniel CollinsMrs Chrisparkle wasn’t over-menaced by Carabosse’s two attendants though; more wet than threat, she felt. As the dark fairy’s son Caradoc, Mr Bunce is the height of snooty, manipulative villainy and his scenes with Aurora are mesmerising; you’d swear Rohypnol was involved. There’s a wonderful coup de theatre – 100% Bourne – when Leo goes to wake Aurora in her bed… and it isn’t her. Caradoc’s final come-uppance is a thrilling scene, with great visual impact and energetic choreography, not to mention effective use of stage tattoos.

Danny ReubensThe whole ensemble are on top form, with great support from Luke Murphy as the footman and Katy Lowenhoff as the nanny, Daniel Collins and Danny Reubens amongst the suitors and Kate Lyons and Mari Kamata amongst the fairies. Apologies if I have some of the casting wrong – but without a detailed cast list the programme is almost worthless!

Kate LyonsThis is a very fine addition to the Bourne canon; and whilst it has neither the painful emotional drive of Swan Lake nor its extraordinarily varied and satisfying score, it’s a delight to see that Mr Bourne is still producing dance productions of the highest quality and vigour. It’s already had a sell-out season at Sadler’s Wells; it was a completely full house when we saw it – wonderful for a Wednesday night in Milton Keynes – and it will continue to tour. I see no reason why this shouldn’t follow Swan Lake and have a proper West End Theatre run. We would be very happy to see it again.

Mari KamataPS. The Milton Keynes Theatre experience is definitely on the ascendant. Not only have they opened up the area of the foyer which used to be a supporters/club members/rich people only area, and now which provides much more space for everyone to relax pre-show, they’ve now also got a chap tinkling the ivories, and I must say he was jolly good. A really jazzy funky version of Justin Timberlake’s Cry Me A River sent us into the theatre with a spring in our step and having forgotten the cares and woes of the day. Well done!