Review – Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake, Sadler’s Wells Theatre, 29th December 2018

Matthew Bourne's Swan LakeFor the record, this was the 7th time Mrs Chrisparkle and I have seen Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake since 1996 – and to be honest, I thought I’d seen it more. There’s no doubt in my mind that this is the finest full-length dance that’s been created in my lifetime, and I don’t know anyone who’s seen it, balletomanes or not, either live or on DVD/TV, who wasn’t impressed with it.

Dominic North as the PrinceIf you haven’t seen it – I can only recommend you try to get a ticket; however, not at Sadler’s Wells, as the entire run is sold out but elsewhere on its tour to Milton Keynes, Birmingham, Southampton, Glasgow and Bristol. You don’t have to have seen an original, classical version of the ballet beforehand, but if you have, there’s the additional fun of working out how Sir Matthew has adapted some of the original characters. But it’s still a superb, stand-alone story of how the young Prince, deprived of maternal affection, is trying to make sense of his life, duty and emotions; and how he finds a purpose with the Swan who may – or may not – be imaginary.

Will BozierI’d love to invite you to read my reviews of when we saw it in Milton Keynes in 2010 and Leicester in 2013 as well, because they show how this dance is constantly evolving. In those blogs I wrote about the changes I had seen from how I remembered it in its early days. Those changes were made sometimes for the better, sometimes not – and once again, in this 2018/2019 tour, there have been further changes, primarily thanks to Kerry Biggin’s re-staging. So much of the meaning of the dance is up to your own personal interpretation of what you see, and your emotional response to it, which also changes over the years.

Prince at SwankThe scene that seems to cry out for constant tinkering is the seedy backstreet disco towards the end of Act One. When we saw it five years ago, I enjoyed how they had created recognisable historical characters like Joe Orton and Quentin Crisp among the attendees – and that the older, tweedy lesbian disco bunny who has always been part of the action was very like June Buckridge from The Killing of Sister George. This time round, the disco scene is more anodyne. Out go the recognisable characters to be replaced by a less charismatic range of dancers; the girls are all in the same glitzy party dresses, the boys are all largely indistinguishable; and they’re all more or less the same age. I missed the sailors on shore leave, who kicked the Prince in the gutter outside the club on the way home. I missed the tweedy lesbian who hovered around the performing female artiste. I missed the schoolboy who sneaks into the disco illicitly, still wearing his school cap.

Swans a swanningSome time ago they changed the opening scene, where we meet the young Prince, getting washed and dressed, and being taken out with the Queen to learn the Art of Royalty. Originally it was a deliberate representation of a child in the role; nowadays it’s danced by the same performer who plays the grown-up Prince. The “child” dancer would also go on to play the schoolboy in the disco scene – which is why I presume he’s now missing. The main problem with that though, is the very final, searingly moving tableau of the show. The Swan always used to cradle the boy in his arms as they look down on the dead Prince on the bed (sorry if that’s a shock). Now he’s just seen with another unknown dancer – who he? – and that final tableau doesn’t particularly make sense anymore.

Queen launchingElsewhere, the First Act dog no longer comedically pulls the soldier who’s taking it for a walk off stage; in the opera house scene, the cast no longer serenely bow to an empty royal box – instead the soldier/courtier rushes in to pick up the girlfriend’s handbag and gets caught in the spotlights. However, there are also many instances where new changes create a superb effect. The lighting, for instance, in this current production, seems to provide extra stage depth in many of the scenes, and the looming shadows cast in the Prince’s bedroom take on a life of their own. The orchestra, under the baton of Brett Morris, played Tchaikovsky’s memorable score with tight excitement and supreme levels of emotion. No change there – I can’t remember a time when the music wasn’t superb.

StrangerBut it’s all about the dancing, isn’t it? Throughout the show it feels like the choreography has been ratcheted up a notch. It’s dangerous, it’s visceral, it’s strenuous. The Act One pas de deux between the Prince and the Queen is thrilling in the near-violence of the Prince’s physical beseeching for attention from his wayward mother. The Prince’s happiness and relief at the end of Act Two as he tears up his suicide note is the most boundless and joyous I’ve ever seen it. The fury of the jealous big-headed Act Three guest who insists that his partner behaves herself, is even more over the top and her dismissing him by chucking her cloak over his head is even more hilarious. The Act Three mocking of the Prince by the Swan and the other guests is even more savage. The general hissing and chattering of the swans, where once they were silent, creates further aggression and hostility; more than ever the swans in this production inhabit a macho environment of competitiveness and antagonism. All the way through the choreography continues to push the boundaries to encourage and enable even more technical brilliance from the dancers and a stronger emotional response from the audience.

Stranger in flightFor our show, we had two knock-out performances from Dominic North as the Prince and Will Bozier as the Swan. We saw Mr North in Matthew Bourne’s Lord of the Flies a few years ago and he still retains those incredibly expressive features that make all the difference when it comes to clear story-telling – in fact, this production of Swan Lake tells its story more clearly and eloquently than we’ve ever seen before. Mr North is an immaculate precision dancer who shines throughout the whole show, whether it be in his dance-based confrontations with the Queen, his rhapsodic joy at being saved by the Swan, or his being manipulated by the Stranger – he was perfect. Mr Bozier is a real find; tall and broad, he makes for a very masculine Swan and an extraordinarily insolent Stranger. Physically he towers over Mr North in their dances together – in a protective way as the Swan and overflowing with arrogance as the Stranger. I’ve not seen Mr Bozier before; he’s a dancer of superb skill and very exciting to watch. I can’t wait to see him in another role in the future.

QueenOur Queen was Nicole Kabera, and, like the rest of the cast, a perfect fit for the role. Superbly man-hungry, you sense this queen will have worked her way through the entire army by daybreak; no wonder she has no time for her pathetic specimen of a son. Ms Kabera has a fantastic stage presence and a very alluring manner; you can really feel that the Prince would be overwhelmingly intimidated by her. Katrina Lyndon’s Girlfriend is a complete hoot who really puts the common into commoner, with her total lack of etiquette but enormous sense of fun; in what I think is a change (or an addition) to the plot, this Girlfriend decides to return the money to the Private Secretary that he had originally paid her for trapping the Prince. And Glenn Graham was our smart and sinister Private Secretary; we saw him dance the Swan five years ago and he still packs a very strong stage presence.

Naughty swansWhat can I say? It’s a devastatingly wonderful production. Mrs C and I were up on our feet at the end with no hesitation. I can’t think of any production better suited to introduce an adult who knows nothing of the genre to the world of dance. However, it was also terrific to see so many children in the audience, both boys and girls, enthralled by it. Twenty-three years ago I knew this show would run and run. It’s showing no signs of stopping yet.

Production photos by Johan Persson

Review – Lord of the Flies, New Adventures, Birmingham Hippodrome, 18th May 2014

Lord of the FliesIt’s a tricky thing, converting a much studied, highly allegorical, significant work of literature such as Golding’s Lord of the Flies into just under two hours’ worth of contemporary dance. As the director/choreographer, if you go into too much plot detail you end up getting bogged down in a mere series of gestures and “dance conversations”, and the audience gets concerned about having to understand every single little nuance – which is pretty darn impossible. On the other hand, not enough detail and it becomes too abstract with just hints and suggestions of the original work and you haven’t really covered your remit.

Dominic North“Do you know the story of Lord of the Flies?” I asked Mrs Chrisparkle, as we quaffed our pre-matinee glass of Sauvignon Blanc. “No”, she replied, “do you?” “It’s all about a group of boys who get washed up on some desert island and have to survive.” I realised my response was light on narrative but I couldn’t remember much else. I read it when I was about 16 at school Because I Had To. “Oh yes,“ I added, “there’s also a boy called Piggy who gets killed”. “Is there a synopsis in the programme?” she enquired. There wasn’t. Two and a half hours later, by the time we were in post-show discussion mode, we realised there were a number of moments that we didn’t really understand. What was the pig’s head all about? Who was the mysterious bloke who suddenly appeared and then dropped out of sight? And then came back again? Why was the one guy left on stage at the end? What do the clothes rails represent? One quick flick through the Wikipedia synopsis of the story answers most of those questions, but I agree with Mrs C – and the ladies on the train home in the evening whom we eavesdropped and heard saying the same thing – a synopsis would have been helpful. And I still don’t get what the clothes rails were for.

Danny ReubensScott Ambler is the choreographer for this piece, with Matthew Bourne as overall director. I am a huge admirer of Mr Ambler’s work – ever since we first saw him as the Prince in Swan Lake, I’ve never seen that role performed better, and I’ve followed his career with thinly-disguised fandom. I think he’s done a superb job with the choreography in Lord of the Flies, creating some exhilarating solos, exciting stand-out group work and characterful quirky moments for individual dancers throughout the show.

Layton WilliamsThere’s a core cast of nine dancers taking the main parts, but in each venue around the country, there is a backing ensemble made up of local young men and boys, from college students to teenagers down to little kids, all of whom study dance or performing arts, and who, on the strength of the performance we saw, overwhelmingly put their heart and soul into it. Naturally, this structure is going to lead to an imbalance of dance skills and expertise, so Mr Ambler has had to construct routines that will bring the best of out of all members of the cast, both experienced and beginners. The result is fantastic – apart from the obvious differences of ages with some of the dancers, the integration between the professionals and ensemble is seamless. You simply cannot see the join. There are many sequences when you have twelve or fourteen dancers centre stage performing the “main dance” (for want of a better expression) while the rest of the cast lurk on the edges, observing or acting out their own mini-playlets; but it’s astounding to think that three to five of those main dancers will be from the local cast.

Chris WilsonThe Birmingham Hippodrome has a pretty massive expanse performance area but the show occupies every possible space. When all the cast are on stage there is so much to watch, with so many different relationships being played out, so much interaction between the dancers and so many little individual scenes that give you an insight into the characters depicted, that I think you’d need to see this show at least three times to be sure of seeing everything. There is an excellent sense of plot progression, as the costumes, make up and choreography all work together to increase the sense of developing chaos and savagery. Even if there are moments when you really don’t get what the story is trying to say, or the symbolism escapes you, the overall visual and musical impact is so strong that it carries you along anyway.

Fenton LockleyIt’s danced throughout with the superb skill and commitment that you would expect from a Matthew Bourne production. Ralph, the kind of “Head Boy” character, is danced by Dominic North, who I think we have seen before but I haven’t really noticed much before. Not only is he a great dancer, but his facial expressions are really communicative, so you can follow plot details and understand Ralph’s character really well. He’s perfectly cast up against Danny Reubens’ “bad boy” Jack, who, I have to say, is exceptional in this production. He was great in last year’s Sleeping Beauty but since then he has really upped his game immensely over the past year. He’s one of those performers you can’t stop watching – definitely a star of the future. In addition, Layton Williams is brilliant as the wistful and unworldly Simon, with elegant and expressive solo work and he is fantastic in his final scene. There’s also a thoughtful and sincere performance by Sam Plant as the doomed Piggy, the responsible intellectual who is always going to be bullied by brutes.

Jack DologhanAll the ensemble guys were also equally fantastic, but a few really stood out for various reasons; Chris Wilson for his extraordinary presence and strong dance skills, Jack Dologhan for the humour and resilience of being the littlest chap, Khalid Daley for the sensitive way he moved with the music, Fenton Lockley for the way he acted through dance, and Hugo von Frangstein for his all-round stage presence and maturity. But, really, they were all great.

Khalid DaleyWe’ve seen a number of Matthew Bourne/Adventures in Motion Pictures/New Adventures shows now over the years, and we both agreed that for visual impact and emotional contact this is very high up there with the greats. Swan Lake is still The Boss for us, but we enjoyed this more than Cinderella, Nutcracker!, Dorian Gray and maybe even Sleeping Beauty. You might just want to refresh your memory of the plot before going to see it, that’s all. This powerful and hard-hitting production is touring on and off for the rest of the year and is a must-see for anyone who enjoys their contemporary dance.

Hugo von FragsteinPS. There was a curtain-up announcement forewarning us that cast members would be at the exits after the show to collect donations to Matthew Bourne’s charitable foundation, Re:Bourne. We’re both perfectly happy to make a small donation on the way out of a theatre but, to be honest, you really do need a little more information about the work that a charity does if you’re to make a contribution. The announcement didn’t give any such details and the advertising in the programme about it is woolly at best. I’m sure it’s a decent cause but we didn’t feel able to give more than a moderate amount without more information. If you’re involved in Re:Bourne please feel free to post more information about its work!