Choreography, direction & scenario Cathy Marston, music Philip Feeney
Northern Ballet
Sadler's Wells

To read or not to read the full programme notes before watching Cathy Marston’s Victoria? Marston has done a lot of research, assisted by her dramaturge Uzma Hameed, and it shows. Confused by who’s who on stage? Maybe not, maybe you’ve watched the television Victoria series and have a general grasp of the Victorian period.

I choose to let the dance lead the narrative and I must say the opium trade passes me by—they are arguing about something, but specifically…? I get Gladstone and Disraeli, Lord Melbourne, Uncle Leopold—just. John Brown and Albert are obvious, but not Victoria’s clutch of nine grown-up children and their partners. I imagine them courtiers. There are red-skirted Archivists, whom I take to be clever personifications of Victoria’s red diaries. A large cast... and great set and costume design from Steffen Aarfing.

Marston (Jane Eyre, The Suit) reveals Victoria’s story backwards, retrospectively, in two acts, by way of these diaries, from her death to her ascension to the throne at the age of eighteen. Was Victoria prolific… 122 volumes, which she hands on to her youngest daughter Beatrice, who, it seems, was a merciless expurgator, losing something like eleven per cent of the total content, which gives Marston free rein / reign to breath life into the vandalised pages.

A fabulous library reached by a double staircase is the background for act one. Victoria dies in a bed under its canopy. A trumpet sounds, drums roll—Philip Feeney’s evocative score, a mix of styles, some lyrical piano, some period, some cinematic accentuation—sets the huis clos (dark lighting Alastair West), if not Shakespearean, scenario.

The private world of the diaries contents are played out as the ever-present, agitated adult Beatrice erases lines, tears out pages, eyes wide in horror as she goes through the stacks. The personal and the political: the dubious John Brown (Gavin McCaia) years post-Albert—entwined duets before Albert’s marble bust; the politicians bringing tedious affairs of state; Empress of India; the kissing of her foot (a visual image that may not be real but how about that for succinct vocabulary).

Albert died when Beatrice was four; Victoria kept her close since the shock of Albert’s early death, controlling her life. Dutiful Beatrice is allowed a moment of happiness, before it is snuffed out. After a tug of war with her mother, she marries, but her young husband, Liko (Jonathan Hanks), dies in Africa (a map of the red spread of the British Empire reminds us of its reach). Their duets are joyous if all too brief. In a chilling moment, her mother dresses her in widow’s weeds identical to her own, a symbiotic relationship mirrored in parallel dance.

The second act is more joyful, lighter and hence more successful. The library shelves are still empty. Victoria (Antoinette Brooks-Daw lovely) in a white shift is a young happy girl if wilful. There’s a battle of wills, but Albert (Lawrence Fox lookalike—from a distance—Sean Bates excellent) opens new vistas for her: the Great Exhibition for one—wonderfully done, the Archivists now pistons and pulleys.

With Albert she is skittish and, of course, Beatrice edited her mother’s erotic entanglement of limbs wedding eve pas de deux. On a round red lover’s sofa, the unexpurgated choreography has something of Kenneth MacMillan about it: the highlight of the evening, for Victoria and for us.

Straitlaced Victorians put under the light. The curtain pulled aside, so to speak, though I’m not sure about the actual swishing stage curtain that clears one scene for another. A distraction, even as it facilitates the episodic, vignette succeeding vignette, nature of the production.

Victoria’s babies appear just so, from behind a small curtain, one after the other in quick succession: hectic childbearing... What a woman, nine babies, red boxes, diaries, passion and then Albert’s untimely death. Did he work himself to death with his many ambitious schemes? Not least coaching his children—they sit before a huge map—in preparation for their roles in later life? The end comes quickly. Adult Beatrice cradles her newly widowed mother—now she understands. In retrospect.

An ambitious undertaking for Northern Ballet, but one that pays dividends. Lynchpin Beatrice is played by two dancers: the young Beatrice (Racheal Gillespie) and the older wiser one (Mariana Rodrigues very serious) who is on stage throughout, shadowing the action, recreating her own scenario—aren’t we all unreliable narrators—the dramaturge to Victoria’s inner life.

Maybe I should be doing a lit crit, not a dance crit. A fine project in this bicentennial year of Victoria’s birth, Victoria keeps one on one’s proverbial toes throughout. The beautiful pas de deux and moving pas de trois, when the heart is brought into play, are a welcome emotional retreat, as they must have been for the stubborn, industrious queen.

Northern Ballet, renowned for its narrative dance works, brings a dynamic company to London. I see the third night and, though the theatre is not quite full, the reception is loud and generous, and my companion thrilled to have seen it. Check out its web site for its touring programme and background information, and go and see them. You won’t be sorry.

Reviewer: Vera Liber