Dance Review: Dark, brutal passion - and not a poker in sight

Edward II Birmingham Hippodrome
Ballet doesn't have to carry a "U" certificate - as Kenneth MacMillan was ever at pains to demonstrate - and in making a ballet of the torrid life and sticky end of Edward II, David Bintley set out to create a dark, flavoursome, sugar-free entertainment. It was made in 1995 for Stuttgart Ballet, and with the help of two principals from that production (Sabrina Lenzi and the excellent Wolfgang Stollwitzer), Bintley has now revived it for Birmingham Royal Ballet, who gave its British premiere on Thursday.

Bintley's gift for storytelling is not infallible (remember Cyrano?) but in Edward II the narrative pace and John McCabe's racing strings and angry drums zip along so that we can cut right to the chase, with none of the expository longueurs that so stifle MacMillan's Mayerling. Within 10 minutes we know who's who and what they are up to.

The curtain rises on a magnificent funeral cortege, looming pillars, cowled figures and dense fog eerily lit by Peter Mumford's expressive lighting. The monks file off, Edward is crowned and immediately resumes his exhilarating tours en l'air with the mercurial Piers Gaveston (Andrew Murphy). His wife is less than thrilled and soon embarks on some steamy pair work of her own with Joseph Cipolla's king-making Mortimer, who is quite clearly A Bad Thing. He and his Barons initiate a civil war in their quest for more power and dominate the stage in testosterone-rich ensembles worthy of the Bolshoi.

The historical narrative is intercut with the 14th-century morality tale Roman de Fauvel, in which a donkey is made king. This is told by a motley crew, including a Fool who sports a large foam-rubber erection that will be familiar to anyone who has ever tried to construct a giraffe with pink modelling balloons.

These costumes are designed by Jasper Conran. Sabrina Lenzi gets to model a succession of ravishing bias-cut devore velvet creations that had me dribbling into my programme. Never mind T-shirts: this ballet could take merchandising into an entirely different league. The ladies of the court wear plain black gowns crowned by a fantastical array of medieval funeral millinery ranging from wimples to distended mortar-boards.

Not all of Conran's costumes are this successful. The Barons have more studded leather cod-pieces than you can shake a stick at - if that's your idea of a good time. This heavy emphasis on leathers is reminiscent of the RSC in its late-Seventies biker period.

Much of the ballet's visual impact is thanks to Peter J Davison's mechanistically medieval sets. A high, wide window at the back slides open like a hangar door - a clever design that enlarges still further the Hippodrome's handsome stage. The opening reveals coronations, sunny blue skies and advancing battalions of blood- thirsty Barons. It's a brutal ballet: Isabella slaps her nurse (the excellent Marion Tait), the nurse spits in Gaveston's face, Gaveston is anally raped by the Barons and the King is peed on by his guards before he endures the final, fatal humiliation. His assassin, Lightborne (Tony Norman Wright), is a skinhead who dances a strangely gentle pas de deux with his victim before a portcullis suddenly falls and a glowing brazier is wheeled on. Lightborne tenderly places a black bag over the King's head before taking careful, and terrible, aim.

Family entertainment it ain't. But it's a strong tale, told with conviction, danced with passion and staged with the greatest possible style. Definitely worth shelling out for a babysitter.

To Tues (booking: 0121-622 7486); then on tour

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