Director and Choreographer: Matthew Bourne
Music: Sergei Prokofiev
Reviewer: Joan Phillips
Starting with a Second World War public information Pathé News Reel telling people how to behave during an air raid, this famous ballet is immediately set in the London Blitz. Matthew Bourne has once again chosen his own unique approach to this well-known story.
But Bourne’s retelling is less a romantic fairy tale, and more, dark, threatening realism than versions previously seen. The opening monochromatic scene completely resets our expectations. A gloomy, drab London, with only shades of grey, everywhere, establish a sense of foreboding from the onset.
In this opening scene, Cinders (Cordelia Braithwaite), is surrounded by her stepfamily in the blacked-out family home. Her father sits to one side in a wheelchair; impassive and disengaged staring into a dim fire. Around her, the mean and spiteful members of the family are excited by the arrival of invitations to a party at the Café de Paris. Except, of course, Cinders.
Thanks to an angel, rather than fairy godmother, Cinderella does get to the ball (of course). However, using the Cafe De Paris as the venue is an inspired choice. Famously receiving a direct hit from a bomb in 1941, the crowded club was obliterated with devastating casualties. In Bourne’s version, the ball becomes both Cinders dream, and nightmare.
So many of the ensemble have the chance to shine in Bourne’s production. Braithwaite is as adept at dancing the clumsy Cinders as she is floating like gossamer in her shimmering ball gown. At the Café De Paris, she meets Harry, The Pilot (played by Will Bozier). At the party, they dance as deftly as Astaire and Rogers. In contrast to her dreams of the ball, where she dances with a dummy, again danced by Bozier, but this time with the robotic jerkiness of a mannequin.
Bourne injects so many comic moments and points of interest into both the story and the choreography. The stepmother, hilariously played by Madelaine Brennan, channels her inner Cruella de Vil, but with an alcohol problem. The lead couple seem only to recognise each other at times if they keep their glasses on. The traditional ballet for which Prokofieff wrote the original score has been supplanted by Bourne’s own balletic versions of the jitterbug, jive and even a conga. It is delightful.
Lez Brotherston’s inspired design keeps the gloom and danger of wartime in our minds throughout. The dull purple London skyline, either dominated by the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral or a gas storage cylinder, is iconic. The only time Brotherston allows any colour is the red tablecloths and stairs at the Café or the large illuminated sign above the band’s stage. Into this grey world, with blocks of blood-red in our eyeline, glides Cinderella in her white sequined dress. With Paris Fitzpatrick’s shimmering white angel in the background, the effect is mesmerising and ominously ghostly.
Of course, Cinderella gets her man in the end but it isn’t quite the ending we are used to from childhood. How much the couple are traumatised by their wartime experiences and how much is dream or reality isn’t always clear. Prokofiev’s original score, although written for a romantic ballet, hints at darkness throughout. Bourne exploits this edgy side to the music using it to repeatedly point to the dangers and tragedies that swarm around the couple.
Cinematic to the end, the young couple leaves us from a railway station so reminiscent of yet more iconic wartime scenes, this time Brief Encounter. Just as in McEwan’s Atonement you are never really sure what is imagined or distorted. Did they really make the happy ending? Was it a dream? A coma? Are they all ghosts? Bourne keeps you thinking all the way home.
Runs until 3 February 2018 | Image: Johan Persson