Secret theatre OA1367D

The Secret Theatre: A Christmas Special
Scottish Ballet
Scottish Ballet Orchestra/Gavin Sutherland, Jean-Claude Picard
rec. 2020, Tramway, Glasgow and King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Arts companies reacted to the Covid pandemic in various ways. A few shut down their activities completely. Others actively attempted to retain their audiences’ interest and loyalty, notably by utilising the internet as a platform to present online performances or even just relays of rehearsals.

Scottish Ballet was one of those companies that attempted, as far as possible, to remain active. Forced to cancel its plans for a conventional 2020 Christmas tour of The Nutcracker, it decided instead to create a new production that would be presented online. That was not, however, to be simply a newly-filmed performance of an existing production. Instead, it was to be a film with an original story, albeit featuring many of the characters from both The Nutcracker and Scottish Ballet’s other recent seasonal hit The Snow Queen, and set to a sequence of music primarily by Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov.

The Secret Theatre is centred on a young boy who wanders into a theatre that’s been closed, presumably by Covid lockdown regulations. As he explores the dusty auditorium and its discarded scenery and props, various characters from Scottish Ballet’s The Nutcracker and The Snow Queen productions suddenly appear. They include, from The Snow Queen, the ringmaster, the acrobats, the clowns, a circus strongman, a couple of snow wolves, Mazelda the fortune teller and her husband Zac, an extended Roma family, the pickpocket Lexi and her sister The Snow Queen herself. Meanwhile, they are joined by such favourites from The Nutcracker as the “chocolate” number’s Spanish dancers, the sugarplum fairy and her prince and a flurry of snowflakes.

Taking less than an hour to tell in full, the relatively straightforward story sees the young boy and his new balletic chums threatened by The Snow Queen’s malevolent magic. After his skilfully aimed football shatters the queen’s icy throne, thereby depriving her of her power, the boy is momentarily transformed into The Nutcracker prince and dances the familiar pas de deux with the sugarplum fairy. Thereafter, reverting to his real persona, he is chased out of the theatre by a security guard. Back on the busy city streets once again, he recognises various passers-by as the friends he had made in The Secret Theatre…

As that somewhat simplified synopsis suggests, there is rather more Rimsky-Korsakov in The Secret Theatre than Tchaikovsky. That, however, proves no particular drawback as, although Rimsky never wrote a ballet as such, his operas are full of characterful dances and many of his other works, including the Capriccio Espagnol which is used here, are equally apt to be repurposed for ballet. Augmented by music composed by Frank Moon and Peter Martin that, while different in style, fits in pretty seamlessly, the newly constructed score effectively fulfils the requirement of supporting the on-stage action while simultaneously driving the busy narrative forward.

In spite of performing on a cluttered film set rather than a theatre stage, the Scottish Ballet dancers acquit themselves very well. The standout performances come from Sophie Martin and danseur noble Jerome Anthony Barnes who deliver a stunning pas de deux as the sugarplum fairy and The Nutcracker prince. Mr Barnes, in particular, combines honed athleticism with a combination of princely dignity and controlled romantic ardour that exactly fits the role. The sequence is filmed, moreover, in a straightforward way that eschews the busy camerawork that characterises much of the rest of the film. It marks a change of pace that’s appropriate both to the circumstances of the story and to the music – and it is all the better for that.

Scottish Ballet’s own orchestra is presumably well practised in both Rimsky’s and Tchaikovsky’s scores and, under the direction of Gavin Sutherland and Jean-Claude Picard, its musicians deliver well-played and idiomatic performances that are, moreover, sensibly paced and expertly suited to the practical requirements of the dancers. The choir that sings the wordless la-la-la of The waltz of the snowflakes is sonically well to the fore – which is unfortunately not always the case on these occasions – and sings most attractively: sadly, they remain uncredited in the accompanying documentation.

A 10 minutes’ long extra feature sees some insightful contributions from creative director Christopher Hampson, film directors Jessica Wright and Morgann Runacre-Temple, technicians and cameramen. Dancers Alice Kawalek, Jerome Anthony Barnes and Bruno Micchiardi are also on hand to comment on the differences between performing for theatre audiences and performing for the camera. Sometimes such added extras can be bland pieces of PR puffery, but this one is rather better than most and offers some interesting insights into the piece as a whole and the process of recording it on film.

The Secret Theatre is certainly a production with a great deal going for it and more than fulfils its original aim of being a very enjoyable seasonable entertainment. Unfortunately, however, there is a possible fly in the ointment. The DVD that I was sent for review purposes was simply very difficult to watch over a prolonged period. It’s difficult to describe the problem exactly in words, but whenever the on-screen action was at its busiest – which was pretty often in this particular production – the visual image was momentarily prone to become slightly out of focus and/or to judder, almost as if a frame or two had been snipped from the film. I have no idea whether it’s a case of a single faulty disc or whether there’s a wider issue at play, but I would be remiss in not mentioning the issue. I do hope, however, that the problem turns out to be a one-off, so that as wide an audience as possible is able to enjoy The Secret Theatre at a time when we would surely all benefit from an extra dose of Christmas cheer.

Rob Maynard

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Cast and dancers
The young boy (non-dancing role): Leo Tetteh
The young boy [understudy] (non-dancing role): Samuel Letsosa
Lexi: Alice Kawalek
The Snow Queen: Constance Devernay
Ringmaster: Bruno Micchiardi
Acrobats: Rishan Benjamin and Melissa Parsons
Spanish divertissement: Javier Andreu and Rimbaud Patron
French divertissement: Grace Paulley
Clowns: Jamiel Laurence, Constant Vigier and Jamie Reid
Strongman: Nicholas Shoesmith
Ballerina: Kayla-Maree Tarantolo
English divertissement: Thomas Edwards
Mazelda: Grace Horler
Zac: Christopher Harrison
Sugar plum fairy: Sophie Martin
Nutcracker prince: Jerome Anthony Barnes
Roma: Jamiel Laurence, Nicholas Shoesmith, Javier Andreu, Rimbaud Patron, Grace Paulley, Kayla-Maree Tarantolo, Constant Vigier, Rishan Benjamin, Melissa Parsons and Jamie Reid
Lead snowflake: Marge Hendrick
Snowflakes: Bethany Kingsley-Garner, Claire Souet, Roseanna Leney, Noa Barry, Hannah Cubitt, Amy McEntee, Xolisweh Ana Richards and Anna Williams
Jack Frosts: Thomas Edwards, Jerome Anthony Barnes, James Hobley, Eado Turgeman and Aaron Venegas
Snow wolves: Barnaby Rook Bishop and Andrew Peasgood
Entertainers: Marge Hendrick, Evan Loudon and Roseanna Leney
Cavaliers/flowers: Bethany Kingsley-Garner, Barnaby Rook Bishop, Andrew Peasgood, Claire Souet, Noa Barry and Anna Williams
Party guests: Thomas Edwards, Madeline Squire, Hannah Cubitt, Amy McEntee, Xolisweh Ana Richards, James Hobley, Eado Turgeman and Aaron Venegas
Night watchman: Stevie Winning

Production staff
Creative directors: Christopher Hampson and Lez Brotherston
Choreographers: Christopher Hampson and Peter Darrell
Designer: Lez Brotherston
Directed for the screen by Jessica Wright and Morgann Runacre-Temple

Video details
DVD-9 double layer disc
16:9 anamorphic
Audio formats: LPCM 2.0 and dts Digital Surround
All regions

Music by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908), Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893), Frank Moon (b. 1976) and Peter Martin (1956-2021)