A red umbrella, a butter churn and dancing chickens can only mean one thing: ballet’s favourite romcom is back. Sir Frederick Ashton’s version of La Fille mal gardée has been charming audiences since 1960 and it still scrubs up as fresh as ever in Birmingham Royal Ballet’s revival at Sadler’s Wells. Without an ounce of angst – no deaths, shades or wilis – it’s a ballet guaranteed to lighten your heart and put a smile on your face.

Jonathan Payn (Thomas), Momoko Hirata (Lise), Michael O’Hare (Widow Simone)... and Peregrine © Bill Cooper
Jonathan Payn (Thomas), Momoko Hirata (Lise), Michael O’Hare (Widow Simone)... and Peregrine
© Bill Cooper

Despite its French ancestry – Jean Dauberval’s original production in Bordeaux dates from 1789 – Ashton’s version is quintessentially English, rooted in Suffolk soil, complete with a maypole dance and a Shetland pony (sugar-munching divo Peregrine). It’s an idyllic pastorale of farmyard fun, telling a simple tale: Lise loves Colas; her mother, the Widow Simone, disapproves, favouring a more financially secure match (Alain); Lise and Colas outwit her; Simone caves in with remarkable ease.

Dressed in pastel shades and Osbert Lancaster’s cartoon sets, it remains a complete joy. There’s knockabout fun everywhere. Widow Simone – a pantomime dame-type role – has pratfalls aplenty – and Ashton’s famous Clog Dance to boot – while Alain’s endearingly gauche persona is caricatured by John Lanchbery’s witty score which often pairs tuba with piccolo to heighten his social awkwardness.

Momoko Hirata (Lise), Mathias Dingman (Colas) and James Barton (Alain) © Bill Cooper
Momoko Hirata (Lise), Mathias Dingman (Colas) and James Barton (Alain)
© Bill Cooper

Lise and Colas’ love is depicted through gentle choreography – a ribbon dance where they play cat’s cradle, a pas de deux where she is turned in attitude as a human maypole, and a tender exchange of neckerchiefs after he has inveigled himself into her farmhouse.

It’s hard to go wrong with Ashton’s sunny masterpiece and BRB fields a very decent cast. I’ve seen funnier Lise’s than Momoko Hirata’s – there’s not much pout and her “When I am married” mime is understated – but her beaming smile radiates warmth, she bourrées crisply and is as light as the yellow ribbon with which she dances. Mathias Dingman portrays Colas with happy-go-lucky ease, although his box split jumps in the Bottle Dance were a little timid. Yet he partners Hirata sensitively in the touching Fanny Elssler pas de deux (commissioned by the Australian ballerina in 1837 to excerpts from Donizetti’s sunny L’elisir d’amore).

Michael O’Hare (Widow Simone) and Artists of Birmingham Royal Ballet (Lise’s Friends) © Bill Cooper
Michael O’Hare (Widow Simone) and Artists of Birmingham Royal Ballet (Lise’s Friends)
© Bill Cooper

But it’s the supporting roles where this performance really shone. Michael O’Hare’s Widow Simone was a delight, quick to scold, quicker to forgive, with a riotous range of facial expressions. His comic timing was spot on, even managing a refreshing swig of beer in a knockout Clog Dance. James Barton’s Alain was perfectly judged, balancing goofiness with lovable shyness. His forlorn look when he loses Lise during the harvest celebrations is enough to tear your heart in two, but his joy in the denouement when he locates his lost umbrella is unconfined.

Ferdinand Hérold's score, liberally sprinkled with Rossini and Donizetti, sparkles in the pit, courtesy of Paul Murphy and the excellent Royal Ballet Sinfonia, the woodwind banter chuckling and clucking merrily, strings swooning and sighing.

There are only three more London performances before BRB heads to Belfast next week, so do go. It’s as much fun as you can have whilst keeping your clogs on.

****1