What possessed the Mariinsky Ballet company to open its London season with this soporific Romeo and Juliet? The celebrated St Petersburg company, still better known as the Kirov, has begun a blockbusting summer run at Covent Garden. The programming is heavy on bread and butter classics such as Swan Lake – but at least that plays to this company's strengths. Romeo exposes its creaking stagecraft and terrible acting. On the first night, only Vladimir Shklyarov's eager, lucid Romeo seemed to believe in the story he was telling.
Leonid Lavrovsky's venerable 1940 production has been a huge hit, but that was decades ago. In 1956, Western audiences were bowled over by their first sight of the Soviet-era Bolshoi, dancing this choreography with passionate gusto. More than 50 years on, the Mariinsky are simply going through the motions.
Lavrovsky's marketplace scenes are full of brawling and peasant dances. The Mariinsky corps skip politely through them. Swaying from side to side, they're conscientiously in unison, but nowhere near the beat. They even manage to be out of time during Tybalt's death scene – which, given the hammer blows of Prokofiev's score, takes some doing.
The orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre may still be exhausted from its recent Wagner marathon. Conducted by Boris Gruzin, their playing here was often thin, missing the music's sweep and grit.
It's a heavy, opera house production – 19th century picturesque Shakespeare, with extra dancing. Pyotr Williams's designs are a painstaking recreation of Italian renaissance scenes. His finest stage picture is Juliet's tomb, with the Capulet family mourning at twilight, beside cypress trees and torchlight.
Other scenes are let down by fading paint, loose backcloths and some iffy scene building. When the Capulets swagger in, semaphoring their huge and hammy reactions, the walls literally shake. Ilya Kuznetsov's Tybalt wins the prize for most over the top bad acting, but he has plenty of competition.
That leaves the young lovers. Alina Somova, the first night Juliet, is being heavily promoted as a new star. She's an elongated dancer, a tall blonde with a very flexible frame. She's toned down her more extreme positions for this role, but she can still look exaggerated. At the height of a jump, she'll yank her front leg higher – pulling the line of her legs past the 180 degrees of the splits. Finishing a phrase, she jerks her chin up. She's best in her simplest moments. The wedding scene, with its low, slow arabesques, is direct and touching. But by the end of the evening, I still didn't know who her Juliet was. When she reaches out to touch Romeo's face, there isn't a surge of emotion to drive the gesture. In the potion scene, she flings her arms out, glaring at the audience, but her inner turmoil is missing.
Shklyarov, another of this company's young hopes, is the most spontaneous person on stage. His dancing is ardent: excitement builds as he whips through a series of jumps, a young man caught up in his emotions. Similarly, he hurls himself into the confrontation with Tybalt – it's the one duel that actually looks like a fight. Shklyarov's acting is not particularly complex, but he always looks caught up in the world around him, ready to fling himself into love or battle. His dancing is clean and bold, with high jumps and strong, clear lines. It's a performance without mannerisms or ennui. The rest of the company can't match him.
Dated though the production is, there are moments when you can see why it was once powerful, but the company performance only offers a choice between dull or over the top.
The season runs to 15 August (020-7304 4000)