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Review Round-up: Pet Shop Boys' Incredible Show

Sadler’s Wells’ production of The Most Incredible Thing, a ballet featuring music by chart-topping pop duo Pet Shop Boys and choreography by Olivier Award-winner Javier De Frutos, premiered last week (22 to 26 March 2011, previews from 17 March).

The full-length ballet is adapted (by Matthew Dunster) from Hans Christian Andersen’s 1870 story of the same name, which tells the story of a contest to find 'the most incredible thing' in order to win the hand of a princess.

Featuring former Royal Ballet star Ivan Putrov, South Bank Show Breakthrough Award winner Aaron Sillis and Clemmie Sveaas, the show included film and animation by Tal Rosner, with design by Katrina Lindsay.

The production, which has been over four years in the making, attracted a broad range of critical response and is already tipped to be making a return later in the year.

Triona Adams

"The signature synth thump can get tiresome. Sometimes the score contradicts narrative as when a flowing lyrical waltz accompanies sexual molestation. But the lovers' lush ‘80s disco pas de deux has people humming it out into the interval … While the story is gripping The Most Incredible Thing itself lacks magic. Being, in fact, a clock that magically reveals figures enacting everything from Adam and Eve to the Five Senses, the stage realisation of this miraculous thing goes from naff to bewildering to threatening. Intriguing whilst not exactly life affirming. It’s a happy ending of course but, are we looking at the triumph of love over hate, creativity over destruction, freedom over oppression? What truly is The Most Incredible Thing? Don’t ask, just go, experience and argue afterwards. Everybody else is.”

Zoë Anderson

“Sometimes things just don't work. Pet Shop Boys have launched themselves into ballet, starting at the deep end with a three-act narrative work. It's an ambitious, sometimes clever project, fatally undermined by waffling choreography … The Pet Shop Boys' score is carefully theatrical, with space for narrative and dance scenes … De Frutos' choreography is shockingly weak. Having conjured three muses out of the clock, he keeps giving them clumsy quotations from the muses in Balanchine's Apollo. Chunks of the princess's wedding come from Nijinska's Les Noces. These aren't so much references as wholesale lifts, awkwardly repeated. The competition becomes an X Factor spoof, with a patronising presenter and a panel of judges, but even this easy target needs more precision. The magical clock takes up most of the second act: De Frutos lugs on everything from pianists to astronauts, without giving them any good steps.”

Luke Jennings

"Aided by Metrosexuality designer Katrina Lindsay, Tennant and Lowe have located the story in a Soviet dystopia modelled on Fritz Lang's Metropolis. Their music is dramatically textured, the choreography is deft and referential (Balanchine, Jooss, Nijinska) and the filmic effects come thick and fast. Somewhere in this high-concept deluge, Andersen's poignant tale is lost … Had Tennant and Lowe been creating a musical about the private life of Princess Margaret, or a disco version of the Book of Revelations, the arch, bombastic tone would have been spot on. Here, it is alienating and typical of an essentially narcissistic school of production in which fundamentals of characterisation and story structure are neglected in favour of postmodern hyperstyling … The 17-strong dance cast is excellent, and de Frutos' expressionistic choreography has a knowing edge … It's all some distance from the world conjured by Andersen, however, and those hoping for enchantment will be disappointed.”

Mark Monahan
Daily Telegraph

“I defy anyone to be bored by this phantasmagorical new collaboration between the Pet Shop Boys and Javier De Frutos … The plot follows the Andersen closely. A king holds a competition to decide which of his subjects can make the most incredible thing: the winner will earn half his kingdom, and the hand of his daughter … In this full-evening adaptation, which moves and morphs like quicksilver, Andersen’s fable becomes an excuse for some tightly constructed, tautly performed modern dance, as well as some of Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe’s best music for years, ranging from Paris-in-the-autumn piano to driving house and Nine Inch Nails-ish industrial stomps … Where it truly sends the eyes popping is in the middle act, in which the 12 ‘images’ of Leo’s clock come to life … So, ‘incredible’? That might be just a fraction excessive. But there are times when this show is so enjoyable it’s - forgive me - a sin.”

Judith Mackrell

"It may have been Tchaikovsky who inspired Pet Shop Boys to attempt their first ballet score, but the music they've written for The Most Incredible Thing is not even a distant relation to The Nutcracker or Swan Lake … One of the cleverest decisions made by the Boys, De Frutos and the design team is to imagine the kingdom as a grimly authoritarian state, and the opening scene of the work is almost the best as the music's four-square beat drives the worker/dancers through exhilarating robotic formations redolent of Russian constructivism and early expressionist dance … The competition to win the kingdom is staged like a Soviet version of The X Factor, with a grainy film of vodka-addled judges who give their verdicts on a series of absurd, lacklustre acts … Yet this work is far less successful when it has to handle the sweeter, more magical sentiments of Andersen's tale … Sweetness and love are elusive qualities, and Pet Shop Boys don't do elusive in this ballet score. From first to last, the music comes at a relentless, pop-video pace that leaves too few opportunities for the emotion within the choreography to breathe and develop … More like a pop concert, actually, than a ballet.”

Donald Hutera
The Times

“Based on a slip of a story by Hans Christian Andersen, and featuring an impressive roster of collaborators, The Most Incredible Thing is a big, shiny fairytale pop-ballet with a strong musical pulse, a potent visual sophistication and precious little emotional pay-off. But if it ultimately fails to lives up to its title that’s not for want of trying … All the elements are in place for a theatrical feast. Played live, Tennant and Lowe’s score is a wash of syncopated beats and melodic hooks that are lent a real orchestral sweep by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia. Katrina Lindsay’s costumes and angular, cut-out settings, beautifully lit by Lucy Carter, draw cleverly and boldly upon Russian Constructivism … Cast as the romantic leads are Clemmie Sveaas, an unhappy Princess trapped in a privileged existence, and Aaron Sillis as her muscular and inventive rescuer. Putrov makes the most of his scenes as a scoundrel who gets his kicks beating up his jackboot henchmen.”


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