The themes of The Right Ballerina are exciting and knotty. The strength of conviction and the lengths of compromise are put head-to-head in both Penny’s personal and professional life, and most interestingly so in what’s left of the tangled space in between the two. However fascinating in their conception, these themes falter in their realisation. The result is a second rate production about a prima ballerina.
Now is the right time for The Right Ballerina. The country is in political turmoil, Loose Women is a source of social commentary and clicktivism allows us to feel enraged and engaged at just the push of a button. The topic is so pertinent that its 2012 original production might even have been prescient.
It wasn’t. Its inspiration, in fact, was a true and widely-covered story: the 2006 uncovering that Simone Clarke, English National Ballet’s prima ballerina, was a card-carrying member of the British National Party. The BNP had already entrenched itself in the public eye as the country’s most right wing and extremist political party and thus a media frenzy followed. Clarke was vilified, demonised and retired from dance to fade into relative insignificance. The Right Ballerina explores, through fictional ballerina Penny Leigh, what might have happened in discussions at the top and how a Company’s sweetheart might fall from grace.
Jack Stevens, Artistic Director of the UK’s leading ballet company, is faced with a dilemma. His principal ballerina – and ex-girlfriend – Penny Leigh has been outed as a member of a far right-wing political party. Although he believes in her right to political freedom he can’t deny the impact it’s having on sales. A mysterious organisation, represented by the shuffling, particular Mr. X, has started to protest the company’s performances. They will not rest, they say, until Penny is driven from dancing.
Over the course of this seventy-five minute play Jack goes back and forth with Penny, Mr. X and serpent-tongued colleague Trevor in different attempts to appease the situation: at first an apology, then an understudy. Mr. X’s organisation votes again, the situation escalates and the ballet’s Board are involved. Jobs are at stake and the risk of bankruptcy is real. Penny is relocated to a sister company in Australia but the Organisation has a global presence. She returns, life in tatters, mother dead and career ruined. The Organisation is still not sated. Penny must be removed. She confronts Jack, painful details of their relationship are spilled and suddenly, the penny drops. And all difficulty towards the company stops. Or so Jack thinks…
The themes of the piece are exciting and knotty. The strength of conviction and the lengths of compromise are put head-to-head in both Penny’s personal and professional life, and most interestingly so in what’s left of the tangled space in between the two. The policing of politics and the ‘slippery slope’ become all too real, and the Left and Right become flipped on their head in a clarion call to the liberal luvvies in the audience.
However fascinating in their conception these themes falter in their realisation. The plot is rudimentary, expected and slavishly linear, and for a female-led story there’s an awful lot of man-on-man non-action. Hyper-aware of its own inspiration, it behaves throughout as Penny does initially: wanting to neither confirm nor deny the specifics. No company or organisation names are given, nor is a time period, and the tally-ho, Home Counties ways of Jack and Trevor clash with their vape and Macbook. To be generous – and in a wider reading of Cowan’s work – would be to understand this as an attack on the Establishment: that those at the top still think and act like the lovechild of Mad Men and Brideshead Revisited. To be less so would be to call it glib and lazy. Relying heavily on stereotyped characters and hackneyed phrasing – “my dear boy”, “fella” and “girls” for grown women – the script feels more Bernard Shaw than British Nationalist. There are moments of spark however: Trevor’s attack on Mr. X, Penny’s vitriol towards her penal colony punishment. The memory of an unborn child – although clumsily introduced – and Penny’s desperate need to dance – although never fully explored – allows much needed emotional investment in the story.
The direction of the play is needling. The tone uncomfortably straddles realism and absurdity without ever convincingly being either, and moments of comedy detract from any sense of the uneasy. Specific choices – such as Mr. X’s pernickety movements – become aggravating not because of their nature but because of their lack of consistency.
The show’s design is equally confusing. A (sub)standard office set-up boasts a rich mahogany desk and two flimsy blue chairs. Three traditional costumes are lit at seemingly random spots across the room and the play opens with a projection of black and white footage, never to be incorporated or reintroduced. The costumes are unconvincing and again add to the groundlessness of the period: Penny’s old-fashioned fur-coat jars against Jack’s obviously straight-out-the-props-bag skinny jeans.
There is perhaps less to criticise in the acting. Adam Grayson as beleaguered Artistic Director Jack Stevens does well, portraying a character that seems to have eaten his father’s words. Genevieve Berkeley-Steele’s embodies a beautiful mover highly-strung and stressed into awkward shapes. Filip Krenus is believably aggravating as Mr. X and the tired cliché of Gregory A Smith’s Trevor is allowed to drop when this aggravation proves too much.
In all, the production is a bizarre blend of the juvenile and senile. Despite its 2012 outing, the script feels underdeveloped and is let down by a design that forgets how unforgiving fringe settings can be, trying too hard on too small a budget to be exactly what it’s meant to be. However, in a country in the throes of “hard” and “soft” “Brexit” Cowan’s themes of choice have never been riper for exploration. Perhaps in four more years we will see a more mature version.