As Britain recovers from the fall out Brexit The Right Ballerina, Billy Cowan’s production transfers from The Lowry to Hen and Chickens Theatre Bar, seems aptly timed as it looks not only at the mob rule that seems to dominate online campaigns but also attitudes to immigration.
The story is based on Simone Clarke, an English National Ballet’s principal dancer, who in 2006 was exposed as being a BNP member. She claimed it was due to mass immigration and Clarke’s story is more interesting that the The Right Ballerina’s Penny Leigh (played defiantly by Genevieve Berkeley-Steele) in that she was in a relationship with a Cuban-Chinese dancer and had a daughter by him.
That is the issue with plays taken from the headlines, the real story is usually a bit more interesting. The Right Ballerina doesn’t have this conflict, we don’t see Leigh interacting with immigrants in the form of fellow dancers. It is all set in one office and the main character seems to be Jack Stevens (Adam Grayson), an associate director of an unnamed but respected dance company who finds his principal ballerina named and shamed publicly as a member of a right-wing party. I felt the casting choice of Stevens was rather misjudged, surely the AD would be a middle aged man and it would have made the secondary story line (about the romantic relationship between between Leigh and Stevens) have a more interesting dynamic. Penny Leigh, despite her politics, is extremely unlikable as a character and I can’t understand why Stevens character is trying to save a ballerina approaching her sell by date. It is interesting performance from Berkely-Steele and I look forward to seeing her in future productions as I think she has a bright future ahead of her. Leigh isn’t an easy character and you can never gage her true feelings on anything and anyone.
What doesn’t always work, though I see the intention, is the character of Mr X played Filip Krenus. X is clearly a Wikileaks type who, he claims, is representing an organisation that is democratically representing members’ views on what should happen to Leigh (resignation, denouncement and as we later find out a whole lot more). The truth is this isn’t how it would be, it would be a lot of angry people on Twitter saying how disgusting it is that this disgusting woman did a disgusting thing but theatre and the internet (with the exception of Royal Court’s The Nether) don’t really go hand in hand so Mr X’s awkward representation of the group makes an excellent point about public shaming and the power of public opinion but it feels unrealistic. I think Cowan does the best he can under the circumstances and maybe a larger venue/cast would have helped make this feel more genuine. It is a strong piece and minor inconsistencies really stick out because it flows well.
It doesn’t help that as an audience we are quite sheltered, due to limited set design by Boaz Tofstein we are constantly stuck in Stevens’ claustrophobic office, with the occasional board update by Trevor (Gregory A Smith), who along with Mr X brings some much needed comic relief. It is a compelling piece and really made me question my own attitudes when these stories of mob rule because someone thinks differently or acts in a way not seen as respectable as well as issues of democracy and privacy.