It’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.
This 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 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.
Some 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 rhythm 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.
It’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. As 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 QUILF. 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.
It 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!