A Midsummer Night's Dream, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds

All aboard the fairy forest express
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The Independent Culture

Sending Titania's fairy bower into outer space and packing Theseus and Hippolyta's court into the sleeper carriage of the Flying Scotsman might be par for the course in producer's theatre. But classical ballet normally plays its Shakespeare by the book. Even Northern Ballet Theatre - a company that once turned somersaults in attempt to turn classical dance into a Yorkshire branch of the West End musicals industry - hasn't thought to meddle with the bard.

NBT's A Midsummer Night's Dream - the first wholly new show created for the company by its still new-ish artistic director David Nixon - makes up for lost opportunity. Not only is this the most imaginative piece of work from NBT in a very long time, but it's hard to recall any recent ballet show so fit to burst with larky good jokes and visual daring.

The story does indeed unfold on the London-to-Edinburgh night train circa 1948, a flight of fancy made possible by the technical genius of designer Duncan Hayler. His life-size metal skeleton of a steam-age sleeping car complete with clunk-click inner doors, etiquette-testing corridors and creaky bunks not only facilitates the comings and goings of Shakespeare's several sets of lovers but also helps define their various discontents.

But first - and just as cleverly - the ballet opens in a ballet studio. It's a common enough conceit to cast characters as travelling players, but in this instance it really adds something. Within three minutes of watching the end of company class and the start of a rehearsal (for a touring production of Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet, rather cheekily), the audience has already identified four of the dancers as The Dream's squabbling young lovers, the company's glamorous prima ballerina as Hippolyta and its haughty director as Theseus. If you're on the ball you might also spot Puck as the slightly demented and put-upon ballet master. And Bottom simply has to be the droopy-drawers stage carpenter, whose secret hankering for Hippolyta is doomed by some unfortunate personal habits.

ID cross-checking complete, the remaining 25 minutes of Act I are strictly padding, but choreographer David Nixon and his co-director Patricia Doyle were clearly having too much fun to stop. The canoodlings and snubbed passes that animate the two would-be couples inspire some very funny choreography indeed, not least when Keiko Amemori's Hermia decides to be a dead-weight Juliet in her pas de deux with Jonathan Ollivier's Demetrius/ Romeo - it's less complicated when you see it, I swear.

It helps that this production comes colour-coded. The monochrome Acts I and III (the women particularly striking in black-and-white Dior-style frocks) take place in the real world of the ballet company. The full-colour Act II is all dream - that of the artistic director tucked up in his couchette. He becomes Oberon, a dashing exotic with a mean line in pirouettes à la seconde. Hippolyta becomes a stroppy Titania, refusing to renounce her ballet shoes to wed the man she loves.

The central couple's career dispute is the production's weakest spot. The duet spent tussling over a pair of pointe shoes feels rather arbitrary and tacked-on, though Nixon might have given it credence by extending the metaphor further. In Frederick Ashton's Dream the transformed Bottom dances on point to suggest donkey's hoofs. Had Nixon done the same for Adam Temple's Bottom, it might have crippled him for life but it would have pushed home the point.

The production would benefit from some tightening of focus in general. As so often in full-evening ballets made by directors for their own companies, it tries to fit too much in: too many irrelevant group numbers, too many cameo roles. Though I concede that Steven Wheeler's camply indignant wardrobe master is very funny, his pitch is very nearly queered by the superfluous casting around him.

Musically, too, it's all a touch prolix. The familiar patchwork of Mendelssohn's overture and incidental music to the play doesn't stretch to three acts, so John Longstaff has stitched in bits from the Octet and all five symphonies, plus some extracts of symphonies by Brahms. Ingenious as this is - and you would be hard-pressed to spot the joins - and as valiantly as it's played by NBT's orchestra under John Pryce-Jones, sheer length makes it pall by the end.

But these are minor niggles given the level of stylish entertainment all round. This show packs in the laughs, it packs in the dance steps, and the company's recent push for higher technical standards led by Nixon's ballet-coach wife, Yoko Ichino, is paying off big time. As for production values, I don't think I've ever known an audience applaud the sets so often, or so delightedly. And given this company's patchy recent history, there is a peculiar satisfaction in knowing that it has hit its best form again with A Midsummer Night's Dream.

The late Christopher Gable, who founded NBT in its present form, played Lysander in the legendary Peter Brook production for the RSC. His vision was for a ballet company that could deliver the full theatrical experience regardless of whether the audience knew their arabesque from their elbow. This production unarguably hits the spot.


Theatre Royal, Nottingham (0115 989 5555), 15-18 Oct; Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury (01227 787787), 28 Oct to 1 Nov