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All set

The Royal Ballet's 'Sleeping Beauty' rattles along despite the best efforts of the designer.
The medical consensus on flu remedies seems to involve bed rest and plenty of fluids; at Covent Garden on Saturday night Darcey Bussell and her fellow sufferer Stuart Cassidy decided to feed their colds with a three-act ballet. Most of us feel giddy after turning over in bed or staggering to the kitchen: Bussell breezed through the promenades and balances in the Rose Adagio before bringing the house down with an unusually convincing collapse. I don't know what drugs she's taking but I want some.

Our joy was short-lived. The first act proved too much for her and she cried off in the interval. Having had its appetite whetted by the febrile marvels of Act 1, the audience's disappointment hung in the air like a bad smell. Good manners prevailed, however, and Bussell's gallant replacement, Belinda Hatley, was enthusiastically received - not that there was much opportunity for applause. The superb Kirov conductor Viktor Fedotov struck up the band almost before we'd sat down. As well as serving both Tchaikovsky and the dancers with sensitivity and intelligence, he can normally be relied upon to shave a few minutes off any ballet, conducting at a fair old lick and cutting the applause short after each solo to drive the action forward. This is a particularly good idea in the third act, which can otherwise seem too much like an awkward string of party pieces. Even including the announcement of the cast change, he still managed to whiz past the post seven minutes ahead of the advertised finish.

The company as a whole was looking good. Sarah Wildor staged a one-woman charm offensive as Fairy Breadcrumbs and Fairy Diamond, Errol Pickford and Deborah Bull were able Bluebirds and Anthony Dowell dragged himself on stage in his lacy black pram as the evil Carabosse.

Of course, the real bad fairy in this production is the designer Maria Bjornson, whose inelegant costumes and attention-seeking sets do not improve on acquaintance and seem contrived to make the dancers' job more difficult. The most famous example of this is the steep staircase via which Aurora is obliged to make her first entrance. What was once a happy run on-stage has become a dangerous hurdle. It is one thing when a fiendish descent is conceived as part of the choreography - as in the ballroom scene in Ashton's Cinderella - quite another to inflict such a superfluous hardship on dancers to satisfy a mere designer's whim. The sets and the colour schemes are intrusive and some of the individual costumes are of breathtaking ugliness. Her excesses are nowhere more apparent than in the third act, when King Florestan and his Queen are obliged to attend their daughter's wedding in gilded body armour. The conception of Gallison in Act 2 (danced on Saturday by Luke Heydon) continues to perplex: why a smartly dressed court would tolerate a retainer who looked like Marley's ghost with a hangover is a secret between La Bjornson and her conscience.

'Sleeping Beauty' continues in repertory at the ROH, London WC2, tomorrow, Thurs, Fri, then 25, 30 Jan, 4, 7, 12 Feb (booking: 0171-304 4000). Darcey Bussell dances Aurora again on 4 Feb

The scenery takes on the corps de ballet (right) Photo: Laurie Lewis