★★★★ CINDERELLA, SADLER'S WELLS Matthew Bourne puts Cinderella through the Blitz
Even if Matthew Bourne were never to choreograph another step, he could fill theatres in perpetuity by rotating old stock. Cinderella, made in 1997, was the follow-up to his break-out hit Swan Lake but, never quite happy with it, he reworked it in 2010, replacing the musicians in the pit with a custom-made recording of an 82-piece orchestra. It’s this version that now appears, slated to follow its London dates with an exhaustive UK tour. At least now no-one in Milton Keynes or Sheffield can complain that the regions are shortchanged by getting piped music. Everyone is. Elevated to the status of movie sound track, Prokofiev’s score now comes complete with Dolby surround sound and added air raid sirens. The volume is such that you now feel the music through your feet.
Bourne’s musical responses are key to his creativity. Connecting the tragic tug of Cinderella’s opening bars to Pathé newsreel of fire-bombed buildings in the London Blitz feels like a lightbulb moment, and the story flows from there, its romance heightened by the era’s sense of fatalism. The downtrodden heroine’s big night out is at the Café de Paris – the historic subterranean Soho dancehall that was thought to be bomb-proof until it scored a direct hit. Thus Cinders’ Prince is an off-duty RAF pilot and the realm through which he conducts his search for the girl with the missing shoe is a devastated central London in 1941.Lez Brotherston’s designs for Bourne’s shows are always a talking point, but in Cinderella he surpassed himself, evoking the sights of London in black and white and smoky greys, an extension of the Pathé newsreel style. We see St Paul’s rising above rubble, we enter an Underground station with its tarts and pickpockets. Everywhere are gap-toothed terraces, twisted railings, heaps of death. His magical coup de théâtre is to show the bombing of the Café de Paris in reverse, the destroyed venue strewn with bodies restored before our disbelieving eyes. It’s a devilish twist on that old ballet tradition, the Transformation Scene with its fairies and magic forests.
Film buffs and ballet buffs can take equal satisfaction playing the “Did you spot…?” game. Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death underpins the RAF theme. Cinders’ ghastly stepmother (Michaela Meazza, done up to look like Joan Crawford and also Cruella de Vil) is an obvious nod to Mommy Dearest. The Angel (Bourne’s substitute for the fairy godmother) tips a hat to Fred Astaire. The choreographic references stack up: The Red Shoes, Romeo and Juliet, Sleeping Beauty, Manon. In truth, the visual interest is so dense and multi-layered that it hardly matters that much of Bourne’s choreography is unmemorable.
It’s a blast, and the music will haunt you for days
The important thing is that it pushes the story forward, although there are moments (a long solo for Liam Mower’s camp Angel) that make you aware of an overabundance of music and not quite enough ideas to fill it. It’s to Bourne’s credit, though, that he reinstates some marvellous sections of Prokofiev in the third act that other productions habitually cut.
As in last year’s triumphant The Red Shoes, this production is blessed in Ashley Shaw (main picture, and above), a dance-actress of subtlety, power and grace who can make a drab cardigan and skirt look like Dior as she twirls around the living-room partnered by a coat-stand. Is it that Shaw makes Bourne’s choreography look better than it is, or did her talent inspire him to his best work? Perhaps both.
Elsewhere, the best dance moves are for the masses, and the final jitterbug as the curtain comes down the best of all. Bourne has always had a good eye for picking out the essence of social dances and adding his stamp. It has to be said that, narratively, some elements of this Cinderella are a little fuzzy. Premonitions and flashbacks are not always well flagged, to the extent that I was left unsure exactly when Cinders and Andrew Monaghan’s dashing airman first actually met. But given the overall dramatic thrust and visual tremendousness of this piece, it hardly matters. It’s a blast, and the music will haunt you for days.