La Fille mal garde @ Royal Opera House, London

performed by
William Tuckett, Marianela Nez, Carlos Acosta, Christopher Saunders, Jonathan Howells, Paul Kay, Leanne Cope, Iohna Loots, Emma Maguire, Romany Pajdak, Alastair MarriottIn ballet, as much as in theatre, it’s the tragedies that often have the greatest impact.

There’s not much that qualifies as tragic in La Fille mal garde; in fact the only injured party in this light, comic piece about a widow who finally consents to her daughter marrying a young farmer, is an upper class twit so high on his own pomposity that it’s hard to feel that much for him as he loses out in love.

Yet when the performances are as skilled as they are here, it is impossible not to revel in the piece’s light-hearted humour.
Though the original La Fille mal garde first appeared in 1789, the version presented here is Frederick Ashtons now classic production of 1960, which features John Lanchberys arrangement of Ferdinand Hrolds much older score.

The sets are two-dimensional so that the clocks and stags heads that decorate the widow’s house are painted directly onto the walls. There is, however, a glorious intelligence underlying their conception, courtesy of the skills of their designer, the cartoonist Osbert Lancaster. The subject matters of the featured paintings are emblematic of his deft wit, whilst the external farmyard set includes cockerels roosting in a tower and dead crows nailed to the barn.

The ballets opening could not be more delightful as Paul Kays Cockerel rises on points and kicks one leg out to form a right angle with his upper body. He is joined by an ensemble of four hens, which includes such star names as Iohna Loots, and together they strut, march, leap and flap their wings with such dynamism that we soon forget how difficult it must be to move in the thick, feathery costumes.

As the widow’s daughter, Lise, Marianela Nez cuts through the air with a mesmerising agility and grace, forming arcs with her legs that cover a great deal of space, and engaging her whole body to create a beautifully fluid movement. For Carlos Acosta, the young farmer, Colas, is a relatively light-hearted role, but the bold movements that it requires enable him to put his muscular body to use as he turns with panache, and lands incredibly cleanly. If the air of ease surrounding his performance ever gives the impression that he could perform these steps in his sleep, it is only because a great part of his skill lies in his ability to make the moves appear effortless.

Just as strong are William Tuckett, Christopher Saunders and Jonathan Howells in the more overtly comic roles. Tuckett as the blustery, and frequently flustered, Widow Simone, cannot help but remind us of Terry Joness mother figure in The Life of Brian. Dressed in drag, he clearly has a whale of a time as he dances on his heels (a milk churn having just landed on his foot) and delivers a stunning set of cabrioles. The undoubted highlight, however, is the famous clog dance in which his embellishments and deliberate mistakes, quite rightly, bring the house down.

Howells captures the puppet-like nature of Alains persona, as he dances like a clockwork automaton with a straightness of back that would surely be the envy of many a dancer. Saunders is equally effective as Alains father, whilst the corps de ballet enthuse the audience with their riotous may polling, morris dancing and tilling of the soil.

With the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House practically glowing with warmth, this production more than proves that Frederick Ashtons La Fille mal garde has stood the test of time by appearing just as strong as ever a full fifty years after it first hit the stage, and indeed the headlines.

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