It’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.
“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.
Scott 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.
There’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.
The 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.
It’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.
All 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.
We’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.
PS. 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!