La Fille Mal Gardée, Royal Opera House, London

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The Independent Culture

As welcome as sunshine in January, but much warmer, Frederick Ashton's ballet La Fille Mal Gardée is a pastoral love story, tender and funny.

As welcome as sunshine in January, but much warmer, Frederick Ashton's ballet La Fille Mal Gardée is a pastoral love story, tender and funny. The heroine, Lise, dreams of marriage and babies with her beloved Colas, and is mortified to find him watching her. Trying to make up, he kisses his way up her arm; she turns away, but makes sure she gives him her other arm to kiss. All around them, Ashton weaves buoyant, intricate dances.

Ashton made Fille for the Royal Ballet, and the company dances it with affectionate lyricism. The corps dances are wonderful: quick, light jumps; musical phrasing; gently bending torsos. Anthony Twiner conducts a brisk, lilting performance.

For this revival, the company has several casts of young lovers. Marianela Nuñez and Carlos Acosta, who danced the first night, were making their London debuts. They aren't quite at home in the ballet. Nuñez has a strong technique and a bright stage presence, but she doesn't have the right line for Lise. Ashton's dances are full of delicate upper-body detail and brilliantly sharp footwork. Nuñez doesn't bend far enough into the steps, and she needs tauter musical phrasing.

She isn't a natural Lise, but she's suitably frank and cheerful. Lise makes her first exit through a door, which at this performance stuck shut. Nuñez gave it a good hard shove, then stopped with hands on hips, stamped her foot and bounced off into the wings. This is perfectly in character: Lise's Act-II tantrum is just like that.

It's a lively performance. Acosta dances Colas with breezy technique and all-round friendliness. He pounces happily on the role's biggest steps - the jumps and spins suit his Cuban training. He's more tentative in the crisp English footwork, but he's a sunny performer in a sunny ballet.

Ashton's story is French; the music is John Lanchbery's adaptation of Hérold. Fille is still entirely English: an English countryside with English dances. The ballet is full of folk steps; there is even a real maypole for the harvest scene. And his character scenes have English pantomime touches.

Lise's mother, who hopes to marry her daughter to a rich neighbour's son, is danced by a man. William Tuckett is a soft-hearted Widow Simone, carried away by romantic feeling. He overdoes a few details, but it's an affectionate performance. He swings happily through the celebrated clog dance.

Jonathan Howells is wonderfully funny as Alain, the dim suitor. Obliged to dance a solo, his face goes all pointy with seriousness. Ashton tells jokes through steps, and Howells dances them beautifully - pawing the ground with neat, crisp feet; jumping and landing back to front. He looks at Lise with a confusion of feelings: embarrassment, reluctance and a kind of coy lust. He's the best Alain I've seen.

One complaint. Ballet regulars have been calling John B Read "the Prince of Darkness" for years. The Royal Ballet's lighting consultant is so keen on atmospheric murk that he makes the stage darker for the final pas de deux. Can someone please turn the lights on?

In rep to 2 April (020 7304 4000)