A Midsummer Night's Dream, Sadler's Wells, London

The train is splendid. In Northern Ballet Theatre's bright, slight and cheerful A Midsummer Night's Dream, David Nixon grafts Shakespeare's plot on to a new story about a quarrelsome 1940s ballet company. After tantrum-filled rehearsals, they rush to King's Cross station to catch a sleeper to Edinburgh. Duncan Hayler's witty set keeps transforming itself: the rehearsal mirrors become a train, the studio's upper windows lift to become the arched glass roof of the station. Everybody piles onto the train, which whistles and blows steam, and moves.

Puck is the ballet master. Theseus, the artistic director, wants his ballerina Hippolyta to retire when they get married. The quartet of lovers are younger soloists rehearsing Romeo and Juliet, squabbling through muffed steps and complaints about casting.

On board the train, their dreams shift the characters into Fairyland. Theseus wants to humiliate Hippolyta-Titania, Bottom is given his ass's head, Puck's mismanaged love potion throws the lovers into confusion.

The cramped train scene is funny: fights without elbow room, struggles to be first to the bathroom. But the best choreography is for the lovers. Helena's bounding pursuit of Demetrius is the most fun: both jumping, she with flying grand jetés, he pedalling in the air as he runs away.

Things get stickier with Nixon's set-piece dances. John Longstaff's cut-and-paste score uses a lot of Mendelssohn, but sticks in chunks of Brahms for longer numbers. It gives Nixon far too much time to fill.

Sometimes he just ducks the challenge. Other Dreams use the Mendelssohn scherzo for brilliant dancing; Nixon gives us a braying donkey and a pillow fight. His serious numbers are no better. The duet for Theseus and Hippolyta is fluently empty, a series of beseeching gestures.

Better steps are wasted in the finale, with the reconciled company dancing a jitterbug. I love jazz dancing, but its fizz is lost in the awful effort of setting it to Brahms.

Hayler's designs keep the performance going. Fairyland is dominated by a giant eye, the upside-down train steaming out of it. The love potion is a teardrop; the muscle at the corner of the eye becomes Titania's pink chiffon bower.

The fairy costumes - all lurid colours and lumpy wings - won't do at all. But the real world clothes - black-and-white New Look - move well, and I like Nixon's attention to period detail: stockings, not tights, rolled hairdos for the women.

The dancers are in lively, energetic form. As Helena and Demetrius, Pippa Moore and Christopher Hinton-Lewis are especially chirpy. Desiré Samaai and Hironao Takahashi are hampered by Nixon's choreography for Theseus and Hippolyta, but dance smoothly. The company as a whole is full of cheerful caricatures.

Touring to 22 May (www.northernballettheatre.co.uk)

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Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


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