DANCE / Missed by a whisker

WITH the Tales of Beatrix Potter, the Royal Ballet has brazenly targeted the Christmas box office - and it will succeed because the production, adapted for stage by Anthony Dowell from Frederick Ashton's 1971 film, is indisputably good-looking.

Adults reluctant to relive their childhood will be persuaded to by little pleas from winsome mouths. And why not? This party-frock special has great visual strength. The pastel sets are faithful to the spirit of Ms Potter, a watercolourist of some note, and the costumes, by Christine Edzard and masks by Rostislav Doboujinsky, are so detailed that waddling Jemima Puddleduck, corpulent Jeremy Fisher and hirsute Squirrel Nutkin are utterly convincing.

There are few interplays, however, so the thrill of watching animals hopping across stage in their bouffant costumes, tiny hands rubbing tired eyes, little feet bouncing on pointes, begins to pall long before the 70 minutes is up. The characters are also curiously dim. Still, that never stopped anyone from being cute.

London City Ballet reminds me of the car rental firm that advertises the fact that it tries harder; a more committed company would be difficult to find. So it is with this company, which invests every performance with a rare wholeheartedness. So why does it persist with Ben Stevenson's tedious version of Romeo and Juliet?

The company mounted the Stevenson ballet (to Serge Prokofiev's score) in last year's season, coupled with Vladimir Bourmeister's neat 1953 version of Swan Lake. The latter was delightful. Not so Romeo and Juliet, but the dancers tried hard. This year, even the give-all-we've-got company looks defeated. The fault lies at Stevenson's door. He simply fails to capture the emotion of Ashton's version and the dramatic angst of Kenneth MacMillan's. The deficiencies are even more cruelly exposed this year on the heels of English National Ballet's revival of Ashton's version in August, and Birmingham Royal Ballet's revival of MacMillan's version in October. Next to these, Stevenson's version looks a shade of prime ministerial grey.

The work lumbers like a steam train on a plateau, occasionally negotiating a few hills, but seldom veering from its dogged course. There is a little hill in Act I when Romeo (Paul Thrussell), Benvolio (Conor O'Brien) and Mercutio (Jack Wyngaard) prepare for the ball like John Travolta in anticipation of Saturday Night Fever. But the overexcited laddishness could be due as much as anything to Wyngaard's winning personality, so puckish and irreverent he overshadows the whole production.

The love duet in Act I should express the miracle of the new love, and although Stevenson has created some good phrases, as a sequence it never quite comes off, like so much in this production. The love duet is the one in which Ashton raises the temperature, making you feel that life will never be the same again for the Verona teenagers. Here the train chugs on remorselessly.

Kim Miller as Juliet is so light she seems to float. Coquettish in the early scenes, she never manages to grow into the young woman who matures quickly after falling in love with the enemy. It is a difficult role, requiring as much acting as dancing, and Miller shows a histrionic rather than theatrical tendency, especially in Act III when she is pressed by her parents to marry the most nerdish Paris (Dincer Solomon) in the business. She grips her shaking arm with a hand to steady it and later flops over the small altar in her room in tears. She certainly has lots to pray for. So do we: a drop of authenticity would do for a start.

'Tales of Beatrix Potter', Covent Garden (071-240 1066/1911) in repertory to 16 Jan; London City Ballet, Sadler's Wells (071-278 8916).

(Photograph omitted)