Created in a whirlwind month of rehearsals in 1960, Frederick Ashton’s La Fille mal gardée is probably the best-loved of English ballets. Based on a 1789 work by Jean Dauberval, it’s notionally set in France, but actually in an idealised England, which Ashton described as “a leafy pastorale of perpetual sunshine and the humming of bees”, the three-act work is a beautifully choreographed romantic comedy. The story tells of Lise, a farmer’s daughter, and Colas, the young man she loves. Standing between them is Lise’s widowed mother, who has social and financial ambitions for her nubile daughter, and is determined to marry her to the son of a local bigwig.
On the opening night of its current tour, following a day in which the weather precisely matched that of the ballet – sunshine interrupted by a downpour – Birmingham Royal Ballet gave a captivating account of this gentle tale. Céline Gittens is a lovely and beguiling Lise. Ashton’s choreography is not easy, and his swooping, soft-backed style occasionally eludes her, but Gittens’s winsome presence and fine sense of comedy carry her through. She is particularly enchanting in the mime scene in Act 3, when she dreams of the children she’s going to have. Her expressiveness, and her touching mortification when she discovers that Colas has been secretly watching her, come straight from the heart. The scene, which Ashton reproduced from the memory of Tamara Karsavina, who danced Lise in pre-revolutionary St Petersburg, is a reminder that this is one in a long line of versions of Fille, with the first predating the French Revolution.
As Colas, Tyrone Singleton is the embodiment of laddish charm. His dancing has the odd rough edge, but his likability and cock-of-the-walk grin make him the perfect foil to Gittens’s Lise. James Barton brings tenderness to the role of Alain, Lise’s hapless suitor. Alain may be a few straws short of a bale, and weirdly attached to his umbrella, but Barton imbues him with an eccentric dignity. Rory Mackay, en travesti as Widow Simone, Lise’s mother, is strongly suggestive of Theresa May: the same mix of the coy and the galumphingly bossy, the same suggestion of a triple gin belted back at lunchtime. And to prove that there are no small roles on the ballet stage, Kit Holder’s mirthless, stick-dry Notary’s Clerk is a quiet masterclass in characterisation.
La Fille mal gardée is an ensemble piece, and the BRB corps attack it with breezy gusto, although they are all rather pale-skinned, given that it’s harvest time and they’re supposed to have been working outside all summer. But then Ashton, who appears to have been under the impression that wheat fields are cut in late spring, was no stickler for agricultural detail.
One of the ballet’s great pleasures is its score, arranged for Ashton by John Lanchbery from an assortment of 18th- and 19th-century sources. Under conductor Barry Wordsworth, the Royal Ballet Sinfonia are attentive to the music’s every melodic nuance, every romantic undertow, every fluttering and rapturous heartbeat. Their playing gilds the dancers’ performances, and turns delight to joy. If you’re looking for two hours of blissful escape, you’ll find it in this production.