Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Oxford Calling

It was the quinessential Oxford experience: an meal at Browns - that iconic restaurant, followed by a visit to the New Theatre, for the English National Ballet production of Sleeping Beauty.

My visits to Browns have been few, with many years between, but each visit has been a truly happy one. It simply breathes life at most times of the day and our ballet trip necessitated an early meal, when most restaurants would be soulless and dull. Browns, though, was buzzing with people at 5pm on an autumn Saturday.

The great thing about this place, is that it does un-pretentious food well. I had the beef pie in Guinness and this came with browned puff pastry topping and creamy mash. This is standard pub fare, but better executed than in most alehouses, with a dark, rich gravy enveloping the pie contents.

The family ate well too, with the youngest opting for sausage and mash, which featured bangers that were un-exotic and tailored to a young palate. The eldest had the burger-with-the-works and this came on a ciabatta roll to give it some distinctiveness. My wife chose the Fisherman's pie, which had a good balance of fresh fish and seafood under the mash.

Being a bistro, the service was quick and attentive, and we were easily able to round off our meal with dessert, and hot-foot to the nearby theatre, through the baroque architecture of Oxford.

The New Theatre is anything but - having been the Apollo previously - and was confusingly laid out and cramped as only an older theatre can be. Admittedly we were in the cheap seats in the vertiginous balcony, which people in the row behind compared with the Bernabeu in Madrid. Once we had recovered our composure, we were treated to a brilliantly coloured production of the traditional ballet, Sleeping Beauty, with music by Tchaikovsky.

The production was a re-designed version of the American Ballet Theatre production, re-using the original costumes. These were truly magnificent, especially in the finale, with more gold than the Bank of England. The lead character, Princess Aurora, was danced by Daria Klimentova, and she displayed the true height of her powers in the scene where she is courted by four suitors. In this breathtaking scene, she is wheeled round by each man in turn, for one complete slow revolution, with her on one point, with her leg extended away from her out-stretched hand. In between each revolution, she has to let go, maintain her balance and grasp the next hand. In all she stays on the one point for what seems like an agonising amount of time, but she carried this off with superb grace and elegance.

The story of Sleeping Beauty is a traditional Labour story of ruler brings in nanny-state laws against pricked fingers and the causes of pricked fingers - in this case needles. He does this in vain attempt to stop only child Princess Aurora from dying in manner foretold at her christening by old hag called Carrebosse. Lucky for them they are 'away with the fairies' and the lilac fairy is able to water this punishment down to a mere one-hundred year nap for all concerned.

Equally lucky for Aurora, the lilac fairy has a good memory and finds suitably able Prince Desire, danced by a slightly hesitant on first arrival Dmitri Gruzdyev. The fairy shows the prince a vision of Aurora, and confusingly he dances with her while she is still asleep - a dream sequence as we say in the trade. He is entranced enough to hack his way through the forest with which the fairy thoughtfully surrounded the castle.

You know the ending - Prince kisses Aurora and wakes up whole entourage despite efforts of fairy-gone-bad Carrebosse. This is cue for big wedding scene with interlopers from other fairy tales.

A magical evening finishes as we wend our way through good natured Saturday binge-drinkers to the car.

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