Review – Matthew Bourne’s Romeo + Juliet, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 28th May 2019

Romeo + JulietHas there ever been an original work that has inspired more variations than Romeo and Juliet? From the Russian ballet of Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev, to West Side Story and a whole lot of other works, those star-cross’d lovers have influenced so many creative souls. And in language too – how many times have you heard that someone was “a bit of a Romeo”? I’m yet to meet “a bit of a Juliet”, although, considering Matthew Bourne’s new version, that might not altogether be a bad thing….

R+J in loveFollowing their successful Lord of the Flies, Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures company has continued its groundbreaking work with young dancers. Not only have some of that class of 2014 gone on to carve dance careers for themselves, but for more than a year now the company has worked with six young, local dancers in each of the locations where Romeo + Juliet will be staged, integrating them seamlessly into the professional cast. It wasn’t until the final curtain call that I worked out who were the local young dancers in our production – each and everyone of them gave a first-class performance and I have great hopes for what they will go on to achieve.

Set in the not too distant future, the Verona Institute is one of those vaguely intimidating establishments that may have originally been set up for the good of its patients (or its inmates, or its captives, you decide) but has gone distinctly off-message with the cruelty of its security staff and the strictness of its mentors. Think Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in cahoots with Hamidou the prison guard in Midnight’s Express and you get the picture. Only the kindly Rev. Bernadette Laurence, who happily encourages music, dancing and – let’s not deny it – sexual intimacy between members of her imprisoned flock, goes against the grain – albeit to no benefit to herself.

R+J Glitterball sceneSome adaptations are close to the original; others are not. This, being Matthew Bourne’s conception, takes the original Romeo and Juliet as a mere hint of a serving suggestion. There’s no sense of warring Montagues and Capulets, no prior love intrigue between Romeo and Rosaline, no apothecary and no poison. Tybalt, rather than channelling his violence towards massacring Montagues, concentrates on physical and sexual abuse towards Juliet, traditionally his cousin. Mercutio and Balthasar have a gay relationship; and Juliet kills Romeo, which, having thought long and hard about it in the hours since I saw the show, is a concept with which I still have a lot of problems.

R&JAll the hallmarks of a top-quality Matthew Bourne production are there. Lez Brotherston’s set is so evocative of a municipal/school swimming pool with its white shiny bricks, and its separate Boys and Girls entrances (to which no one pays any attention), that you can almost smell the chlorine. What makes it different is the prison-style barred doorways and gates that step up the sense of the young patients being shut off and incarcerated. Outside there’s probably an exercise yard. Why anyone would voluntarily check in, like Romeo’s parents appear to do with him, beats me. Remind me not to book into the Verona Institute; it isn’t anything like as appealing as it looks in the promotional brochure.

Brett Morris’ fantastic orchestra play those sumptuous Prokofiev melodies with power and eloquence. The score has been re-orchestrated for this production, choosing a different combination of instruments, in an attempt to modernise it, create an acoustic sound-world (so says the programme) and make it generally more relevant. It works very well; the music is stunning throughout and accompanies the dancing perfectly.

R+J togetherThe dancers are all on excellent form, with some beautiful pas de deux from Paris Fitzpatrick and Cordelia Braithwaite as the eponymous couple, the powerfully menacing movement and presence of Dan Wright as the fearsome Tybalt, and a characterful and cheeky coupling of Reece Causton as Mercutio and Jackson Fisch as Balthasar. Daisy May Kemp brings humour to the role of the Reverend Bernadette, and there’s some superb and eye-catching work from Callum Bowman’s Sebastian, Hannah Mason’s Frenchie and Bryony Harrison’s Dorcas.

However, despite all these excellent ingredients, apart from Balthasar’s decline into zombie level distress after the death of Mercutio, I found it all strangely unmoving. The dance begins, Blood Brothers-like, with a melodramatic tableau of the dead Romeo and Juliet on their slab, so you already know it’s imbued with fatalism and isn’t going to end well. The dancing and choreography are spectacular to watch, the visual effects are very powerful (wardrobe must curse all that blood on those nice white clothes), and there are some amusing and horrific vignette moments that keep you thoroughly entertained. But at the end of the day, I feel this is too far away from the original Romeo and Juliet story to bathe in its reflected tragedy. Of course, as a Matthew Bourne creation, it naturally still towers over many other modern dance productions, simply by dint of its expansiveness, its inventive choreography and its overall vision.

R&J in glitterThe tour continues to Plymouth, the Lowry, Cardiff, Sadler’s Wells, Norwich, Birmingham, Canterbury, Southampton, Nottingham and winds up in Newcastle in mid-October. Bourne aficionados will want to see it as a matter of course, and will doubtless love its sheer spectacle; why wouldn’t you? Romeo and Juliet fans might be slightly more disappointed. It goes without saying that the terrific performances carry it through; but, knowing how astounding Sir Matthew’s dance works can be, something in me kinda wanted more.

Production photos by Johan Persson

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!

Review – Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake, Curve Theatre, Leicester, 9th November 2013

Swan LakeIt’s incredible to think it, but it is now 18 years since Matthew Bourne’s original production of his sensational revitalisation of Swan Lake first hit our stages. At the age of 18, it’s now come of age. It can vote, get married and go to war. By definition then, it can no longer be an enfant terrible, more a pillar of the community. But even if the audience knows full well what to expect, each performance is an assault on the senses. You still get those frissons of witnessing the avant-garde, being challenged by the sight of an all-male troupe of swans, observing the veiled (or not so veiled) hints of homoeroticism, gratefully appreciating the first act humour, powerlessly suffering the desperate tragedy of the final act.

The PrinceThis is one of those shows that we always see every time it comes around, and this was probably our ninth or tenth visit. We last saw it three years ago and appreciated then that there had been a few minor changes to keep it moving and contemporary. Today there are more changes; nothing drastic, just a few embellishments and emphasis changes, and some re-shaped choreography in Acts Three and Four. These make the swans more menacing as a group (although perhaps less menacing individually), and make the Prince even more tortured. This may well be due also to the amazing performance of Sam ArcherSam Archer as the Prince, who actually played the Prince when we saw it in 2010 but who I think has now really got into the role in a much greater depth. I found Act Four more moving than usual and I admit I had to brush away a tear when the Prince finally collapses dead on the bed (sorry if I’ve ruined the ending for you). One of the swans (Tom Cummings maybe – a little hard to tell without a full cast list) picked up the dying Prince and held him in his arms in mockery of the Act Two position that the Prince had adopted when he was being entranced by the Swan. It was a stunning visual image.

The SwanSome other subtle changes include having recognisable celebrities in the Act Two bar scene – it always did include the thick-set tweedy woman who visibly warmed to the charms of the younger girls – but I see she is now characterised as June Buckridge (from Frank Marcus’ Killing of Sister George). We now also have the appearances of Quentin Crisp and Joe Orton turning up too, so I think it’s fair to say that bar has become a little more metrosexual (at least) in its nature. The girlfriend character is now even more badly behaved during the gala ballet scene – in addition to all the little transgressions she used to do she now beats out the Glenn Grahamrhythm of the music like a tattoo on the front ledge of the box, to the disgust, naturally, of the Queen. The choreography for the Act Three waltz seems to have become even more lascivious, with a lot of appropriately raunchy hip-swivelling, which made it all the more entertaining as a result. However, Mrs Chrisparkle thought the end to the third act looked a little messier in comparison with previous performances. Perhaps clarity of storytelling got sacrificed for the whirlwind of activity that takes place in those final few very important seconds; she didn’t think that was quite up to scratch.

Michela MeazzaIt’s still a sensational show though. Sam Archer is superb as the Prince (even though for me Scott Ambler remains the best) and for the performance we saw, his Swan was danced by Glenn Graham. I think that’s a lucky role for a cover to perform. Our first Swan was Will Kemp, understudying Adam Cooper I believe, and he was mesmeric. The Swan/Stranger role is one where you can absolutely show off and stun your audience. Mr Graham was enthrallingly brilliant. As the Swan he was so intense; his incredible ability to hold a fixed gaze really heightened the tension between him and the Prince. His dancing was immaculate too. The BarAs the Act Three Stranger, that same steely glare helps him dominate proceedings and I absolutely loved the way he led the Allegro Molto Vivace coda (that Tchaikovsky originally put in Act One) – full of brilliant attack with all the boys stage right lunging their way into the coquettish girls’ stage left area and back again; superbly entertaining.

In the performance we saw, the Queen was danced by Michela Meazza and she was superb. Sometimes the Queen can be a little static – so aloof and over-starchy that she barely moves. This Queen danced magnificently, whilst still bringing all the cruelty and horror of the unloving parent to the role and nicely enhancing the humour of her selecting escorts from the talent on offer. To be honest, if I may be so bold, and if you would kindly forgive my directness, gentle reader, she’s the original QUILFAnjali Mehra. Anjali Mehra played the Girlfriend with huge enthusiasm and a great sense of fun; you got a sense that this girlfriend truly regretted her involvement in any underworld plot to discredit the Prince. From the ensemble, I really enjoyed the partnership of Chantelle Gotobed and Luke Jackson as the Italian Princess and escort – he the know-it-all but ineffectual celebrity, she the girlfriend from Hell, encouraging the Stranger to be as naughty with her as you could decently show on a Saturday matinee. But everyone put their heart and soul into the show and it was a fantastic performance.

Act FourIt was a sell-out, so if you want to see it on its current tour, don’t hang about booking tickets, get them bought now! It’s touring through till May 2014 including trips to Belgium and Israel. Go on, you won’t regret it.

PS. The audience were disappointingly chatty; because the music is recorded, I wondered if that signalled to people that it’s perfectly ok to talk over it in a way that you wouldn’t if it was live. In case you were wondering, it isn’t.

PPS. I bumped into Messrs Harry Francis and Simon Hardwick, late of A Chorus Line, who are in Leicester rehearsing the Christmas show, Chicago. It was very nice finally to be able to say a quick hello to them. Mr Francis said he thought Chicago was going to be great (you heard it here first) – had I booked? I hadn’t then, but I have now!

Review – Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty, Milton Keynes Theatre, 30th January 2013

Sleeping BeautyA new Matthew Bourne production always has the promise of greatness. It was at the Wycombe Swan that we first saw his Adventures in Motion Pictures’ Swan Lake, one Saturday matinee in 1995, and we were electrified by it. I think we saw it three or four times within that first year, and whenever it comes round, as it often does, it’s our sworn duty to go and see it again. Since then we’ve seen Cinderella, Nutcracker, Highland Fling, The Car Man, Play Without Words, Dorian Gray, and last year’s Early Adventures, all of which are somewhere on the scale between very good and excellent. And now we have Sleeping Beauty, which to my mind is the nearest he has come to recreating the theatrical thrill that is his Swan Lake.

Christopher MarneyGood to see Mr Bourne is still working with his tried and tested colleagues. One glance at the programme and you are reassured to see that Lez Brotherston has designed the set and costumes. The sets are amazing – opulent and classy, and still leaving a large central space for all the dancing to take place. Particularly stunning are the house and garden scene for Act Two and the neon lit wedding reception for Act Four. The costumes are splendid too – especially outstanding are those for the good fairies and Carabosse. The puppetry to convey the baby Aurora is also brilliant: subtly done, remarkably realistic and very funny.

Chris Trenfield One of the problems I have with some of Mr Bourne’s works is that, for contemporary dance productions, sometimes they’re just isn’t enough choreography. Well he’s certainly put that right with Sleeping Beauty. It’s jam-packed full of dance; and one of the finest sequences comes quite early on with a remarkable pas de six performed by Count Lilac and the five fairies. Lively, exciting, dramatic and also humorous, the variations are all superbly danced and you can’t help but grin from ear to ear whilst watching.

Hannah Vassallo A very small quibble – it’s hard to tell from the programme who is performing which role as you have a choice of two or three performers for each character and no information insert to guide you for that individual performance. So in my mentions of any particular dancers in this blog, I sincerely hope I have allocated the correct dancer to the correct role – I am relying on their bio photos and my mental images of what they looked like! I’m pretty sure our Count Lilac was Christopher Marney, recently a well deserved nomination for outstanding performance in Modern Dance in the National Dance Awards. He was excellent in this Act One pas de six, but also fantastic in the climactic assault on the wicked Caradoc at the end, even if his masked appearance with Leo (Chris Trenfield at our performance) making their way to the wedding reception, did put me slightly in mind of the 1960s Batman and Robin. I was also a little put off by the visual tableau just before the interval when it looked like we’d gone all Transylvanian. Mr Marney looked highly creepy in this scene, and I thought Leo’s transformation into a good fairy could have been done a little more subtly.

Ben BunceChris Trenfield is great as Leo – he does some wonderful solos and has a fantastic rapport with Hannah Vassallo who played Aurora when we saw it. His highly athletic dancing, dressed as a working gamekeeper whilst everyone else is in their fancy garden party whites, is visually outstanding and Mr Trenfield really gets into the rough-and-ready aspect of the character. The only duff note of the whole evening for us was the step sequence depicting Leo going on an interminably long walk to find Aurora.Luke Murphy It was funny at first, but then it just went on too long – and choreographically, it’s not very interesting. Miss Vassallo was a superb Aurora; cheeky, slightly tomboyish when we first see her; amusingly checking out all the suitors at the garden party, and her dancing with Leo in that scene was exquisite. She looks perfect for the role too – precisely how one would imagine Sleeping Beauty to look in real life.

Katy LowenhoffCasting a severe spell over the garden party scene is Caradoc, the nasty son of the dark fairy Carabosse, both played by Ben Bunce (I think) in the production we saw. His appearance as Carabosse in the first scene is thrilling. He looks like the most malicious drag queen diva bullying his demands on the ineffectual King and Queen, almost as if he were a Beardsley creation (Aubrey, not Peter). Daniel CollinsMrs Chrisparkle wasn’t over-menaced by Carabosse’s two attendants though; more wet than threat, she felt. As the dark fairy’s son Caradoc, Mr Bunce is the height of snooty, manipulative villainy and his scenes with Aurora are mesmerising; you’d swear Rohypnol was involved. There’s a wonderful coup de theatre – 100% Bourne – when Leo goes to wake Aurora in her bed… and it isn’t her. Caradoc’s final come-uppance is a thrilling scene, with great visual impact and energetic choreography, not to mention effective use of stage tattoos.

Danny ReubensThe whole ensemble are on top form, with great support from Luke Murphy as the footman and Katy Lowenhoff as the nanny, Daniel Collins and Danny Reubens amongst the suitors and Kate Lyons and Mari Kamata amongst the fairies. Apologies if I have some of the casting wrong – but without a detailed cast list the programme is almost worthless!

Kate LyonsThis is a very fine addition to the Bourne canon; and whilst it has neither the painful emotional drive of Swan Lake nor its extraordinarily varied and satisfying score, it’s a delight to see that Mr Bourne is still producing dance productions of the highest quality and vigour. It’s already had a sell-out season at Sadler’s Wells; it was a completely full house when we saw it – wonderful for a Wednesday night in Milton Keynes – and it will continue to tour. I see no reason why this shouldn’t follow Swan Lake and have a proper West End Theatre run. We would be very happy to see it again.

Mari KamataPS. The Milton Keynes Theatre experience is definitely on the ascendant. Not only have they opened up the area of the foyer which used to be a supporters/club members/rich people only area, and now which provides much more space for everyone to relax pre-show, they’ve now also got a chap tinkling the ivories, and I must say he was jolly good. A really jazzy funky version of Justin Timberlake’s Cry Me A River sent us into the theatre with a spring in our step and having forgotten the cares and woes of the day. Well done!

Review – Matthew Bourne’s Early Adventures, Derngate, Northampton, 29th May 2012

Early AdventuresEvery few years a revival of Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake comes around and it is compulsory under Artistic Law that you must go and see a performance because it is just the greatest thing since sliced entrechats. Mrs C and I have seen it probably ten or so times now and it never fails to amuse, beguile and horrify. But what of his other work? We’ve seen his Cinderella, Highland Fling, Car Man, Nutcracker, Dorian Gray and Play Without Words and they have all been fine entertainment in their own way – I list those productions in what I think is ascending order of excellence – but to be honest none of them come close to Swan Lake for its combination of aching emotion, inspirational choreography and downright funniness. So it’s fascinating to have the opportunity to see (for the first time, for us) three of his earliest works, to compare them with his later works, and also to compare them with contemporary pieces of today.

Lez BrotherstonThe set and costume design are by long-term collaborator Lez Brotherston. When you see Lez’s name in a programme, you know you have nothing to fear. Incredibly simple staging proves wonderfully versatile, as through the course of the evening a simple mini-proscenium arch and a few benches coupled with effective lighting suggest townhouses, countryside, railway stations and all things Paris.

SpitfireThe first piece, Spitfire (1988), is brief in more ways than one. Four poised and posy guys in a variety of vests and pants present us with a stately pas de quatre. The humour comes from the juxtaposition of their classical attitudes danced to a full orchestral Glazunov score, with the ridiculousness of their undies appearance. It was very nicely done, and I particularly liked the way some of the dancers looked snootily down their noses when their colleagues were performing their variations – very Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo; as was the suggestion that they were sexually interchangeable, sometimes doing more ballerina-type moves. I thought Christopher Marney was splendidly lugubrious in his pomposity. A very good curtain-raiser.

Christopher Marney Next we had Town and Country (1991), with “Town” coming before the first interval and “Country” coming after. For me this was the most entertaining of the three pieces. Both parts are basically sequences of vignettes showing aspects of life in the town, and then the country, set distinctly in the early 20th century. “Town” starts with the arrival of grand people at a grand house, having the servants bathe them, while a couple of gay guys get to know each other over a genteel cup of tea – a super performance of aloofness from Tom Jackson Greaves. The scene changes to a railway station with a splendid tribute to Brief Encounter, complete with amusing waiters, which finishes with a clever bittersweet ending to the two couples involved. This is all Bourne at his story-telling best. “Country” features some typical bumpkins doing what turns out to be a lethal clog dance, some excellent recreation of horse and hound-land and some effective depiction of unsophisticated rumpy-pumpy. Whilst there are comparisons between the town and country lifestyles I don’t think the dance as a whole is meant to draw any major insights from putting the two together, which is probably a trick missed.

Town and CountryAfter the second interval it’s The Infernal Galop (1989), an homage to la vie Parisienne, with music by Charles Trenet and Edith Piaf amongst others. More apparently unconnected vignettes, featuring lovers and sailors, including some rather unsubtle stuff at the pissoir and culminating in a version of the can-can that is diametrically opposite from what you would expect, which was a nicely subversive ending. I did feel this particular piece lacked narrative though. Whilst I love Trenet’s “La Mer”, Paris is approximately 110 miles from the sea, so I couldn’t quite understand its relevance, and whereas the scenes in Town and Country followed quite a meaningful sequence, I didn’t get any sense of unity with “Galop” apart from the setting itself. A lot of the dance work also involved quite intricate mime. Sometimes the characters seemed to be communicating with each other with elaborate hand gestures reminiscent of Give Us A Clue, and if you didn’t get what they were trying to convey (as I didn’t) it was like being left out of a conversation. I would have preferred them to try to convey their message through the wider choreography rather than concentrated manual shenanigans.

Tom Jackson GreavesWhat was particularly interesting in these three pieces was recognising the early use of some trademark Matthew Bourne choreography moves made famous in Swan Lake. We saw on more than one occasion dancers outstretching the left arm straight ahead whilst placing the right over their head and pointing their fingers in the same direction, in precisely the same way he choreographed the general appearance of the Swan Lake swans’ heads. In both Spitfire and Galop a dancer was on the floor, his upper body at 90 degrees to the floor with right leg stretched out and the left bent inwards, toes pointing in the same direction as the right leg, arms in fifth position, exactly as the Swan appears on the lake. On another occasion dancers depicted animals by simply touching their two hands together at the wrists and making a snappy clapping sound by bringing the tips of the fingers together, very much as a savage Swan Lake swan would. Mrs C recognised the swaying motions of dancers that reminded her of the basic dance moves of the Major Domo character. There’s probably a thesis to be done tracing the development of Bourne’s hallmark motifs.

The Infernal Galop The genius, if that is the word, of Matthew Bourne’s works is more in the wider interpretation and the mise-en-scène than in the detail of the choreography itself. He is great at taking a well known story or situation and putting it in a different place to maximum comic and/or shock effect. Throughout the whole evening you get the feeling that his primary aim as a choreographer – in these early pieces at least – is to make you laugh. Recently we have seen both the Balletboyz and Richard Alston Dance Company and in both cases, the physical demands and level of technical expertise required from the dancers far outshone what was evident in these Early Adventures. That’s not a criticism of the dancers in this production who literally did not put a foot wrong. But Bourne’s choreography did not challenge me to the same artistic degree as those other companies. I asked Mrs C if she thought the choreography was deceptively simple, or just simple. She agreed that she thought it lacked the technicality of some recent productions we have seen; and when you take all the ingredients together that make up the perfect night at the ballet, it’s an area where this production is slightly lacking.

Matthew BourneIt’s also really noticeable how Mr Bourne creates much better dance roles for men than for women; nearly all the memorable moments – the telling facial expressions, the comic nuances, the star dance turns – were performed by men. The only exception was during Brief Encounter where the two female dancers got equal stage rights.

I don’t want this to be too introspective, because it’s a fun show of dance escapism, and not a serious examination of the human condition. A highly entertaining evening of inventive comedy dance performed to perfection by a very likeable company, the audience gave it a big reception and it deserves to have a very successful tour throughout June.

Review – Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake, Milton Keynes Theatre

Look, I promise you – Swan Lake when I go to see something I don’t enjoy, I really will tell you. There’s nothing duller than someone going on about how great something is. It makes you think they haven’t honed their critical faculties. Honestly, though, mine are pretty honed. I do, however, do my best to see performances that I think I will like. Not much point going to stuff you know you won’t like. I’m not a professional critic after all.

So we come to Thursday night’s performance of Swan Lake by New Adventures, out of Adventures in Motion Pictures. Matthew Bourne’s modern take on an old masterpiece, thereby creating a fresh new masterpiece for the last and this century.

Fridge MagnetLet me take you back, if I may, 15 years to the Wycombe Swan Theatre and the first time we saw this production. Look, here’s a picture of our old Fridge Magnet! A Saturday matinee, with the chief roles of The Prince and The Swan danced by Scott Ambler and Will Kemp respectively. They remain my favourite performers in the roles; their dancing was fantastic (take that as read) but Will Kemp as the Stranger in the Second Act was precision to perfection. Scott Ambler’s expressions of all the emotions Bourne puts the Prince through are memorable to this day.

In the intervening years I estimate we’ve seen the show another 8 or so times. Basically, whenever it’s on – we go to see it. So going back to see it now is like seeing a lovable old friend, checking that it’s still in rude health and still as full of gusto as ever. Delighted to report that it is.

Sam Archer Here we now have the 2010 Fifteenth Anniversary Tour, with Sam Archer as the Prince and Richard Winsor as the Swan. The dancing remains fantastic; although for me Sam Archer’s expressions are not quite heartfelt enough to be completely convincing. It’s a small cavil. On the other hand, Richard Winsor’s Swan very nearly beat Will Kemp in the favourite stakes in that I (we both in fact) really felt completely sorry for the Swan at the end, whereas normally you feel more sorry for the Prince. Richard Winsor Sorry is not strong enough actually – you feel devastated for the Swan. We measure how much we enjoy the performance of the Swan/Stranger by the precision with which he ends up on the Down Stage Right table in the ballroom scene (if you’ve seen the show, you’ll know which bit we mean). Will Kemp still keeps the honour of being tops in that department.

But it remains an absolutely wonderful production. Funny, sad, inventive, insightful. So many memorable moments – the Royal Box scene where the uncouth girlfriend shows herself up is as funny as I’ve ever seen it. The programme notes reveal that Matthew Bourne has changed a few small bits, notably trying to tone down the humour at certain points. Well not in this scene he hasn’t.

Scott AmblerThe disco at the seedy bar is possibly slightly less funny but the machinations of what’s going on appear a bit clearer now. And in the ballroom scene, the guys who have had their girlfriends semi-seduced by the Stranger now appear to get together to dance a “Who the bloody hell does he think he is” type of dance, which I hadn’t noticed before. The Queen does an excellent “Don’t Touch Me – unless you’re one of those nice boys I fancy” routine and dances tremendously athletically. Wonderful too to see Scott Ambler now cast as the Private Secretary, deviously manipulating half the characters, taking sadistic pleasure in ruining the Prince, dancing with effortless ease.

The swans are as stunning as ever; I know that to some eyes the all-male swans meant homoeroticism, and I’m not denying it’s there, but for me having the swans as male mainly increases their menace, their power and strength, their capacity for harm. The way they emerge nightmare-like in the final scene still sends a shiver of fear down your spine. When the group of swans turn on and attack “our” swan at the end you feel it is because he has transgressed some code of species, and “gone off” with a human. It’s an inventive and effective way of showing the viciousness of prejudice.

You’ll gather I still like the show. So did the capacity crowd (if it was a football match) at the Milton Keynes theatre. This is one of those productions that it should be compulsory to see. It will change your life to some extent.