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The Right Ballerina – The Lowry, Salford

Director: Billy Cowan

Designer: Colin Eccleston

Choreography: Julia Griffin

Music: Jamie Summers

Reviewer: Dave Cunningham



Billy Cowan’s new play explores the tricky subject of whether it is possible to adhere to ethical standards in a society where these are subjective and may be determined by groups other than ourselves. Penny (Helen MacFarlane) has dedicated her life to a ballet company never going sick or taking holidays and even terminating her pregnancy. But when her membership of an extreme right-wing group is revealed the company, including her former lover Jack (Adam Grayson), have to decide whether to support her or surrender in the face of bullying tactics from a shadowy organisation represented by the odious Mr X (Richard Sails).

Writer/ director Cowan constructs the play masterfully. The script initially teases with the suggestion that Penny’s transgression might be sexual rather than political (‘Does it matter what box I tick?’). There are no easy choices in the play. The audience is faced with a heroine whose opinions may be offensive but whose dedication and self-sacrifice seem admirable and an accuser whose moral stance is impeccable but whose witch-hunting attitude and self-satisfaction is repulsive. The verbal violence between the former lovers is startling and disturbing.

The many scene changes could be disruptive but Cowan’s skilful use of Jamie Summers’s ominous string-driven music during the changes maintains momentum and suspense. Although at one point you think the author has pushed his luck with one twist too far a final development brings the show to a completely satisfying close.

Colin Eccleston’s set, in which strips of gauze suggest walls, not only imaginatively resolves the problem of shaky scenery but also adds to the sense of the characters being wounded.

Impressively Helen MacFarlane convinces as both a ballerina and as someone with sincere, if misplaced, beliefs. Her gauche little-girl approaches to her former lover suggest that, at heart, the character lacks confidence and is politically naïve. Adam Grayson makes Jack a terrific combination of guilt and regret at past mistakes and conveys the screaming frustration felt by the audience at the increasingly surreal situation in which he is trapped. Richard Sails responds to the challenge of personifying a character who, as the name Mr X suggests, is largely a plot device by making him even more reprehensible than written. Mr X is a physical coward and unable to face the human being suffering the consequences of his judgement. Steve Moorewood’s fey exasperated Trevor adds a comic element to a very fine cast.

‘The Right Ballerina’ is a powerful blend of storytelling and provocation and should not be missed.

The Right Ballerina is at the Lowry in Manchester on 12th and 13th October 2012 and tours to Liverpool and Belfast.

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