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Peter and the Wolf at the Hackney Empire

Posted on April 19, 2008

Everything should have worked with this production of Peter and the Wolf: it is admirably designed and well costumed, the musicians are from the Philharmonia Orchestra no less and it has Brian Blessed as the predictably larger-than-life narrator. However, as a danced piece, it falls short. Not that anything is bad, just not quite good enough, and too often I found myself being slightly disappointed when I should have been enchanted.

The original Prokofiev score has been padded out by the addition of a prologue, which is designed to set the scene for the familiar story of the little boy and his lupine adversary and to make it a “full-length” entertainment. The score for this by Philip Feeney is wisely not in Prokofian vein – it would have sounded too much like pastiche – but what it fatally lacks is the identification of each character in the orchestra, which is something Prokofiev, of course, does so brilliantly. It is generic music, pleasant enough but lacking definition. However, both it and the Prokofiev were superbly played by the Philharmonia soloists – a rare treat in dance which suffers all too often from second-rate playing if live and more often taped music, which kills spontaneity dead and runs against the whole concept of live performance.  Expensive as musicians are, they are important.

I only wish that Didy Veldman’s choreography had been more individual – rarely is there a movement which is particular to any one character – I wasn’t looking for duck-like movement from the Duck, but I would have been happier if there was a leitmotiv of sorts, which would then have mirrored the specific use of the oboe by Prokofiev and would have compensated for the lack of something similar from Feeney. But no – humans and animals all have a similar vocabulary, and this can only be a negative. Additionally, I was frequently frustrated that Veldman chose to disregard what was being communicated by the Narrator; when we are told that the Cat and Bird stay in the tree as the Wolf circles below, it can only be perverse not only to make the Cat come down out of the tree but also to have the Wolf doing something else. Something a small child would have no hesitation in pointing out!

For fear of coming across too negatively, let me say that what is presented on stage is very professionally done, and, the litmus test, kept the numerous little ones happy and attentive throughout. It looks lovely, part picture book in concept, and is expertly lit by David Kidd. The costumes are quirky – Paul James Rooney’s engaging, chunky little Peter should not have been kitted out in lime-green crochet hoodie top and pink tweedledum trousers, they did nothing for him, but others were more successful: the Duck is all ruched chiffon, Elizabethan ruff and egg-yellow quiff, strange but it worked. The Wolf is in grey body suit and furry legs (more than a nod to Matthew Bourne’s iconic Swan), and the Bird in puff ball tutu but wisely without the Elmer the Elephant body stocking of the programme photograph. Brian Blessed is, excuse the obvious, a blessing – not only does he fill the stage with his titan presence, but he has an easy and entirely engaging rapport with his audience – much to the amusement of the other performers at the curtain calls he roared “marvellous audience, marvellous Hackney!”, to clear approbation. More importantly, he is able to deliver the narrative with spontaneity and has a myriad of voices and vocal effects to bring his lines to life. He has become an official National Treasure.

The dancers are both uniformly excellent and hard working; I was particularly taken with Christopher Marney’s sinister Wolf – it came as no surprise that he has danced with Adventures in Motion Pictures and George Piper Dances among others given his easy command of the stage and belief in his character. His movements were possibly the most interesting of all the dancers, and while not particularly wolf-like, had an internal logic; a pity then that the others did not have more to play with in the same vein.

Gerald Dowler writes for the Financial Times, Ballet 2000 and several dance publications and websites. His articles have included appreciations of both Bronislava Nijinska and Antony Tudor and he has interviewed extensively for Dancing Times. He teaches at the City of London School.

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