To say that Scottish Ballet’s new production of Highland Fling is a copper-bottomed, fur-lined, nailed-on smash hit would be seriously to understate matters.
It takes something special to get the crowd at Glasgow’s Theatre Royal clapping the pre-set but when Andy Stewart, singing Donald, Where’s Your Troosers?, no less, came over the sound system as the lights went down, that’s what they did.
Famously, Matthew Bourne’s retelling of the original Romantic 19th-century ballet starts in the cludgie of a Glasgow nightclub rather than the farmhouse of the original. But it still uses Herman Lovenskiold’s original music, with a few striking additions from Mendelssohn's Wedding March to Brigadoon. The contrast with all the modernity on stage is part of the fun.
And under the modern dress, the cocaine snorting and the occasional bare bum, the story is not so different from August Bournonville’s 1832 original, itself based on an earlier story by French writer Charles Nodier, who was in turn influenced by the tales of Ossian which so captivated continental Europe in the late 18th century.
So James is about to marry Effie – the club is where they are celebrating their stag and hen nights – until the Sylph appears and tempts him away in the very middle of his wedding. But when he runs away to join her and the rest of the sylphs in a wood outside the city, it all ends in tears.
Otherworldly creatures are very much part of Scottish folklore, selkies, kelpies and the rest of it, so it’s not such a huge stretch to have such a thing in a modern setting. But what makes this ballet – for it is still a ballet and there is plenty of dancing, especially in the second half – so intoxicating is the way it plays not just with the original story but with just about every familiar Scottish icon.
Lez Brotherston’s sets and costumes are drenched in tartan and even the male sylphs have a kind of kilted skirt. The delight is in the detail; the dipsomaniacal granny at the wedding, the cans of Export, the Old Firm scarves back at the apartment, the Glasgow kiss, the pictures on the wall, the snatches of popular Scottish tunes.
In a period of navel-gazing over Scottish identity, especially in the arts, it is worth noting that Christopher Hampson, Scottish Ballet’s new artistic director, has been in the country eight months and Bourne came here once on holiday. And yet here is something that plays with Scotland’s familiar symbols ancient and modern with every bit as much wit, awareness, affection as was ever seen in Morag Deyes’ game-changing Off Kilter.
Christopher Harrison who plays James is from Kippen; I’m not sure if that gives him any special knowledge since he is only one of three Scots born dancers. But Brenda Lee Grech (from Malta, if you must), as the girl that fancies him but who he is not marrying, could have walked in off Sauchiehall Street so convincing is her Glasgow attitude. And the Sylph, (Sophie Martin – French) draws on traditions from across Europe, including Scotland, to create a disturbing but alluring otherworldly creature.
Matthew Bourne himself is a genius at telling stories in dance and this show is no different. No one will ever know how Hampson persuaded him to give Scottish Ballet this show (the original version of which came here in the early 1990s). It's the first time he has ever allowed a show to be done by a company other than his own. But we must all be very glad that he did.
This is a great show for everyone – the company, the audience, the dancers and for Scotland. Can Hampson tempt Bourne back for more? Tam o'Shanter, The Bride of Lammermoor, or, if you prefer, Trainspotting or Morvern Callar all beckon.