Peter and the Wolf, The Swan, High Wycombe
Carlos in Cuba, Coliseum, London
Who's afraid of a big, bad wolf with shaggy wrists? Not the audience, in this expanded version
Sunday 13 April 2008
It's 72 years since the first performance of Peter and the Wolf, the children's story, for narrator and orchestra, conceived by Sergei Prokofiev for the pleasure of his own young son. Generations of children (or, more realistically, parents) have loved it since – none more so, apparently, than the Belgian producer Anne Geenen. She loves it so much that she's virtually mortgaged her career on it, obsessed with nailing the perfect staging.
What's the difficulty, you might ask, given the luminous charm of the original? The snag is that the Prokofiev runs at only 30 minutes. What's needed, according to Geenen, is another 30 minutes of music and story, and choreography to make the two halves a whole. In 2005, her production company paid a composer, a choreographer, a writer and a designer to do the business, with pleasing enough results.
Geenen, though, wasn't satisfied. And now she's had another go: different new music, different designs, different narrative text and different choreography by the Dutch dance maker and sometime Rambert dancer Didy Veldman. Not to mention a big TV name in the speaking role. One boggles to think of the cost.
So, will the second investment hit the jackpot? Maybe not. The live involvement of soloists of the Philharmonia remains the best part of the deal, as crisply alert in their responses to the familiar Prokofiev leitmotifs as to the new material by Philip Feeney. Ranging from perky foxtrots to lyrical description of the forest setting, the British composer politely doffs his cap to Prokofiev. It was a nice idea, too, to mirror the Russian's opening gambit, identifying the character of different sections of the orchestra. But though the textures of Feeney's writing are engrossing, its sheer density of invention fights for space with the spoken text. Compared with Prokofiev's airy second half, his is a wood that needs thinning.
The other blessing of this production is, aptly enough, Brian Blessed: a big man with a big stage presence and an even bigger voice, which rumbles from a distance, like a train emerging from a tunnel, in the time it takes him to say the word "Wolf!". The pity is that the stage wolf isn't nearly so scary: just a dancer in shaggy wristbands, wheeling about in windblown jumps. When the tiny boy sitting near me started to whimper, I thought perhaps I had misjudged. But "I wanted a woooooof! I wanted a woooooof!" turned out to be his timid complaint. This wolf didn't pass muster, even for a two-year-old.
Odd how you're often sold short on the very thing you came for, whether it be the beastliness of dancing animals or the presence of a star. Carlos Acosta proved a generous exception, appearing in three of the four items inCarlos in Cuba, his latest outing with his dancing chums from home. The biggest pull was naturally Tocororo Suite, compiled from highlights of Acosta's own hit show. But while it was glorious to watch one of the world's most polished classical dancers twitch his hips in relaxed party rumbas, it was still better to see his Don Q. It might be a hoary old party piece, but Acosta defines it anew.
'Peter and the Wolf': Hackney Empire (020 8985 2424) to 20 April
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