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.