The Secret Theatre

Choreography by Christopher Hampson & Peter Darrell, music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky & Nikolai Rimsky Korsakov
Scottish Ballet

Leo Tetteh as the Young Boy, on set of Scottish Ballet's first ever feature film The Secret Theatre Credit: Mihaela Bodlovic
Soloist Bruno Micchiardi as Ringmaster, on set of The Secret Theatre Credit: Mihaela Bodlovic
Soloist Jerome Anthony Barnes and Principal Sophie Martin, behind the scenes of Scottish Ballet’s first feature film The Secret Theatre. Credit: Credit Andy Ross

It's been a difficult year for theatre and, as winter wends its way upon us, it's impossible to deny that something is missing. The winter season is a particularly important one for the stage all across the UK, with families gearing up for panto, plays and ballet, while the companies and theatres put forth their best seasonal fare. Of course, as in so many other ways, this year, things are different. It's become clear to both audiences and performers as this usually fruitful and busy period has been swept away in a calamitous year of many hardships and sorrows.

It's a refreshing delight then that Scottish Ballet has chosen to broach this gap in a novel way. Eschewing the more obvious way forward, and simply releasing digital recordings of old glories, instead, hot on the heels of their recent short film The Swan, they've created a full film revelling in the wonder of the Christmas season.

The Secret Theatre follows the adventures of Leo Tetteh as The Young Boy who, after practising some ball control out on the street, steps into the open door of a theatre. While wandering wide-eyed and curious through the seats and stage, he finds himself transported into a world of wonder and movement, as dancers begin to appear from the staging and boxes.

Throughout the hour-long traffic of this performance, the boy is led by the puckish Lexi (Alice Kawalek) from the wonders of the travelling circus to the warmth and comfort of a Christmas party, beset by the mischief and machinations of the sinister Snow Queen (Constance Devernay), opening his eyes to the beauty and miracles of ballet and the magic that springs from the stage.

The moments which make up the meat of The Secret Theatre are drawn in largely equal parts from last year's winter performance of The Snow Queen, as well as from this year's intended but delayed production of The Nutcracker. While the interplay of Lexi and the Snow Queen is central to much of the middle act of the film, the inclusion of Sophie Martin's Sugar Plum Fairy and Jerome Anthony Barnes's Nutcracker Prince never feel tacked on or ephemeral. The devised story world, staging and performance co-created by Christopher Hampton and Lez Brotherston is less a compilation of moments from a pair of beloved winter season ballet classics, it's a celebration of the event of attending the theatre, working as a form of homage to the experience of visiting the theatre, before the return to the cool and tempered reality of the real world.

In terms of a performance, there's no faulting the myriad dancers and musicians who have put hard work into this creation. The dancers adapt well to the shift from lengthy live stage spectacle to the more intimate necessities and subtleties of Steadicam-shot film work. It's also beautifully crafted for screen under the adept hands of Jessica Wright and Morgann Runacre-Temple as co-directors and the keen eye of David Liddell's cinematography. If there's a flaw in the screen side of things, it's perhaps an over-reliance on reverse-photography and occasional moments of frame-snipping, but these are aesthetic choices that largely will go unnoticed by a theatrical audience.

Ultimately, The Secret Theatre doesn't overstay its welcome and the narrative never tries to do more than it purports. It's a joyful reminder of what has been long-missed this year. While it can never quite capture the soft thrum of music-filled air in the upper circle, or the joyful ache of stepping out of the theatre doors into the crisp winter night after a performance, the entire Scottish Ballet company has given us a rare Christmas gift indeed.

Reviewer: Graeme Strachan