In her 200th anniversary year, Queen Victoria is everywhere. A few days after Season 3 of the British television series Victoria was launched, Cathy Marston’s new full-length work for Northern Ballet headed south from its Leeds premiere to Sadler’s Wells. A co-production with National Ballet of Canada, Marston’s Victoria focuses on the queen’s fraught relationship with her youngest daughter, Beatrice. Opening with the monarch’s death, it depicts Beatrice ploughing through her mother’s journals, preparing them for publication but cutting out the juiciest episodes. One wonders how far Queen Victoria would have been amused.

Pippa Moore (Beatrice) and Abigail Prudames (Victoria) © Emma Kauldhar
Pippa Moore (Beatrice) and Abigail Prudames (Victoria)
© Emma Kauldhar

Beatrice was more censor than editor. A prolific diarist, Victoria designated the princess her literary executor, a task that took over three decades. In transcribing the diaries, some two thirds of the material was excised. Marston’s libretto, created with Dramaturg Uzma Hameed, is in flashback, starting with Victoria’s later life. Prince Albert died only a few years after Beatrice was born, so she only really knew her mother in the extreme grief of mourning. As Beatrice grew up, Victoria was heavily reliant upon her to the extent that her personal life was stifled.

As episodes are danced before Steffan Aarfing’s towering set of metal bookcases, the older Beatrice is seen poring through volume after volume, furiously ripping out pages. Unfortunately, the flashback structure means the ballet lacks narrative sweep and it could be confusing if you don’t read the synopsis and study the cast list beforehand; Beatrice’s siblings are largely anonymous, as are the politicians, although the slippery Disraeli is clear enough. But by transferring the focus to the young Victoria in Act 2, Marston provides contrast, as Beatrice discovers a vivacious, passionate side to her mother, until Albert’s death changes everything.

Sean Bates (Liko), Miki Akuta (Young Beatrice) and Abigail Prudames (Victoria) © Emma Kauldhar
Sean Bates (Liko), Miki Akuta (Young Beatrice) and Abigail Prudames (Victoria)
© Emma Kauldhar

Northern Ballet is to be commended for commissioning an original score from Philip Feeney, but the result is little more than a soporific soundtrack to a costume drama, partly pastiche and featuring a noodling piano commentary. Solo trumpet marks the older Beatrice’s episodes, accompanied by the irritating scratch of a pen. At its best, it evokes Felix Mendelssohn, a favourite composer of Victoria and Albert.

Marston’s choreography slips seamlessly from one scene to the next, with duets and trios the most striking features, often where female characters are required to support partners in hold. Abigail Prudames is a striking Victoria, stern in old age, where she literally leans on her daughter, using Beatrice’s back as a writing desk. She throws ecstatic star shapes on pointe, symbolic of power and resolution. In Act 1, Victoria’s infatuated, swirling duet with John Brown – her trusted servant, powerfully danced by Mlindi Kulashe – is particularly tender, until an agitated older Beatrice disrupts it and shreds that page from the diary. Marston and Hameed have Brown die saving the queen from an assassination attempt.

Abigail Prudames (Victoria) and Mlindi Kulashe (John Brown) © Emma Kauldhar
Abigail Prudames (Victoria) and Mlindi Kulashe (John Brown)
© Emma Kauldhar

Pippa Moore’s Beatrice is an observer rather than a protagonist, yet she constantly draws the eye. The most touching moment comes when young Beatrice (Miki Akuta) dances with her German husband (Sean Bates), which turns into a clever pas de trois haunted by the older Beatrice where each supports the other. When Beatrice is widowed, Victoria engulfs her in a mourning gown, suffocating her in black… effectively turning the princess into her own mother.

Victoria, however, sheds her mourning dress to become Young Victoria in Act 2, Marston freezing the action when the queen’s eyes lock with Albert’s for the first time. Joseph Taylor’s elegant Albert sweeps her off her feet, spinning around with Prudames laying across his back. They later engage in all sorts of amorous contortions around a plush velvet sofa, which Beatrice prudishly expunges from the record. Sparring frock-coated politicians trade sweeping ronds de jambe and a corps of archivists mechanically delivers the red dispatch boxes that power government. An brilliantly amusing sequence juxtaposes Victoria’s prolific childbearing with the simultaneous growth of the British Empire.

Abigail Prudames (Victoria) and Joseph Taylor (Albert) © Emma Kauldhar
Abigail Prudames (Victoria) and Joseph Taylor (Albert)
© Emma Kauldhar

The ballet doesn’t really work on an emotional level, though. Victoria is more like an interesting history lesson, just requiring Lucy Worsley to pop up in period costume and add her witty commentary. But it’s stylishly produced and Marston’s fluid, through-composed choreography is frequently intriguing and inventive.