BalletDanceFeaturedReviewSouth East

Matthew Bourne’s The Midnight Bell – Theatre Royal, Brighton

Reviewer: Simon Topping

Director and Choreographer: Sir Matthew Bourne 

Playwright: Patrick Hamilton 

The brooding underbelly of the 1930’s is brought to us from the imagination of Matthew Bourne and the novels of Patrick Hamilton, in this stunning ballet piece that wows the Brighton audience at the Theatre Royal. 

The stage is dark and the beautiful scenery is fittingly gloomy as the ballet begins. One man dances alone and slowly we are greeted by nine more disparate characters as they gather, spin and turn at the late night watering hole, The Midnight Bell.  Much drink is consumed as the personalities begin to intertwine and relationships old and new emerge from the dance; a secretively gay couple, the cuckolded husband and his flirtatious wife, the olderman looking to make a younger woman his bride, the older woman who falls for a conman and the unrequited love of a young barmaid for her colleague.  Each pairing seems doomed from the off and a sense of foreboding hangs in the air as we engage with their lives through dance and evocative music.

The interactions between dancers seem effortless, bodies are constantly moving in harmony like the cogs of a finely tuned Swiss watch.  One group scene the performers exquisitely rewind for ten seconds or so before the metaphorical play button is pushed, it’s a lovely device, wonderfully executed.     

The scenery (expertly designed by Lez Brotherson) shifts and turns almost as elegantly as the cast.  Glass panels hanging high over the performers are moved in and out to denote pub windows and a phone box and a bar is placed in several positions to get differing angles of venue as the night goes on.  

The lighting (Paule Constable), dramatic, predominantly  piano and violin, music (Terry Davis) and eerie sound scapes (Paul Groothuis) complete the vision of the dreary and unforgiving world we are placed in.  At key points 1930 songs are played and mimed by particular characters to help explain their stories. The lighting is used to perfection and highlights the seedy world we are being shown.  It is like being immersed in an English Dick Tracy cartoon.  

The environment is heavily influenced by the 1930’s novels of Patrick Hamilton, the author of Hangover Square and 20,000 Streets Under the Sky, as well as the plays Rope and Gas Light.   The piece was created by examining the text of Hamilton’s fiction, looking for the emotional state of his creations and then finding the corresponding physical movement.  The novels are well rooted in the seedy Soho of the early twentieth century and Bourne and the dancers have done a fantastic job of transferring that seediness to the stage.

Each pairing gets a chance to shine.  Lurid bedroom scenes intertwine with several couplings to great effect and the dances on the bench are particularly poignant, especially a short vignette with the secretly gay couple and a lovely comedic turn by the older man and his potential bride.  

Solo dance in the “phone box” by the obsessive young bartender is spellbinding to watch, as is the whole cast throughout the night.

The Midnight Bell is mesmerising to watch.  The audience are totally engrossed by every movement and every story being played out. It makes those in the auditorium laugh, cry and feel for the desperate lives of the downtrodden characters, who seemingly have no respite in their precarious situations.  Nevertheless the audience wills them to do better and escape, despite the turmoil, regret and obsession that surrounds them.

It is to the credit of the production that the crowd almost forget this is a dance piece as the stories are so captivating.  This is a show suited to those who don’t think ballet is for them as well as the seasoned ballet goer.   

There are no happy endings for Bourne’s characters here, but the piece itself is a triumph and is greeted by a deserved standing ovation at it’s close. 

On tour till 21st November 

Reviews Hub Score

Spellbinding  Magic 

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