Still far from perfect but chaps will like it: Royal Ballet’s Frankenstein reviewed

16 March 2019

9:00 AM

16 March 2019

9:00 AM

Choreographer Richard Alston is now 70 and his latest outing at Sadler’s Wells is a greatest hits medley. As with all clip shows, some of it is super, some soporific and some merely meh. We begin with Martin Lawrance’s Detour, first performed last year. The piece is a powerful hybrid of fluid dance and martial arts: kung fu meets pas de deux. The raking lamps by designer Zeynep Kepekli spotlight dancers in washed indigo and ochre tunics. The final image of a male dancer spinning his female partner like a storm-warning weather vane is striking. The trouble with minimalist soundscapes (very Tubular Bells) is that unless the dancers control both breathing and landings, it all gets a bit huffy, puffy, thud.

Quartermark is a series of four short extracts made over the 25 years since the founding of Richard Alston Dance Company. In Fever (2001) Monique Jonas is a sun goddess in radiant bronze dress. Shimmer (2004) sees Joshua Harriette dance a melancholy swansong. In his blue sequinned tunic, Harriette is like an aging grande dame lamenting lost youth. In Bach Dances (2018) Jennifer Hayes and Ellen Yilma — the night’s standout star — shimmy with sprightly gymslip grace. Their perky precision is cheering to watch, though the piece tips perilously close to Olympic mat routine. The Signal of a Shake (2000) is a frolicsome affair. Alston’s dancers are often most effective as an ensemble. Seeing the choreographer juggle one baton or a pair is never as exciting as seeing ten members of the company in the air.

Proverb (2006) is all intellect, no intuition. To a recorded reading from Wittgenstein — ‘how small a thought it takes to fill a whole life’ — dancers in Carnaby Street costumes scatter across the stage like a Paul Klee painting brought to life. The costumes in Brahms Hungarian (2018), by Hilary Wili, are a treat: bodiced frocks and layered chintz. The mood is a little gypsy, a little May Day. Pretty enough but it does go on.

Liam Scarlett’s adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein opened in 2016 to middling reviews. Now, in best terror tradition: Frankenstein Returns. (Insert reanimated corpse joke here.) The production has been tweaked and trimmed but it is still far from perfect.

Federico Bonelli as Victor Frankenstein is handsome and strong-lined but his interpretation is less wayward genius, more travelling salesman. Laura Morera is lovely and lilting as Elizabeth Lavenza, Victor’s childhood sweetheart. But the chemistry — and this is a story all about chemistry — is flat.

So to Ingolstadt University for the first day of term. Designer John Macfarlane gives us a tiered operating theatre — fabulous set — rising above a sheeted body ready for dissection. Nurses waltz with specimen jars and frock-coated freshman swap their books for surgical saws. Victor’s only friend Henry Clerval (James Hay — excellent) faints at the sight of blood, while Victor gets his grand idea. The brothel scene — a wheeze for shoehorning more female roles into a boys’ story — is hoary and boring. We’ve seen it before in Manon and Mayerling.

The two Ingolstadt scenes are electrifying and the resurrection brilliantly done with bubbling jars and pyrotechnics. The appearance of Wei Wang as the Creature galvanises an otherwise stolid plot. Wang invests the Creature with immense pathos. He is ungainly, then graceful; hesitant, then horror-struck by his own scars. His longing for a partner is movingly done and his dance of friendship and death with Victor’s younger brother William gives you the requisite shivers. Bravo, the Royal Ballet School’s Ptolemy Gidney (great name) who not only danced William beautifully, but did so blindfold.

The third act’s stargazing wedding waltz sparkles at first, then drags its silken feet. Bonelli’s vapid Victor is not so much tortured by the Creature killing off his family and friends as niggled. Come on, man! Get some backbone. Dig one up if you have to. The pas de deux between Elizabeth and the Creature is chilling and there is more than a hint of erotic attraction between the Creature and his Creator. We end with a Promethean image of the Creature striding into distant flames.

It was a much younger audience than usual at Covent Garden and many more men. For the chap who might not warm to fauns and fairies, Frankenstein would make a fine first ballet. There’s a skeleton of a good production here. A shame it never quite comes to life.

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