Sadler’s Wells new Christmas show is Matthew Bourne’s Cinderella. Matthew Bourne for Christmas is becoming quite an institution in Rosebery Avenue – last year they had the quite wonderful new production of The Red Shoes. This year, it’s not exactly new, though, because this is a production conceived back in 1997. It’s based on a very clever notion – Bourne takes the Prokofiev music (the same as in Frederick Ashton’s much loved fairy tale ballet of Cinderella) and updates the story to the era in which it was written. So, it’s Cinders in the Blitz.
Lez Brotherston’s sets are full of burning buildings and searchlights but his piece de resistance is the rising from the ashes of the Café de Paris. The club was devastated by two bombs that, in 1941, dropped down a ventilation shaft into the underground dance hall and exploded with devastating effects killing 34 people. Act II opens with the aftermath and then Brotherston restores the club to its former glory, glitter ball and dancing couples included, raised from the dead by the magical intervention of the Angel.
The Angel is Bourne’s version of the Fairy Godmother and played by Liam Mower with panache despite his very strange shiny white suit – surely one of the least flattering costumes in ballet history. For the transformation scene, he provides Cinderella not with a coach and horses but a silver motorbike and sidecar – inspired. It is the Angel’s guiding hand that changes the fate of Cinderella – Ashley Shaw whose bespectacled gauche charm turns suitably enough to double as a Hitchcock cool-blonde like Joan Fontaine or Grace Kelly.
Her prince is a wounded pilot, Harry, dashingly danced by Andrew Monaghan with a touch of the David Niven. Bourne’s love of old films is front of stage here and there are homage moments to Brief Encounter, Waterloo Bridge and even Pathe News. In the role of Sybil, the wicked stepmother, Michela Meazza, is the archetypal Hollywood bitch. Meazza is as mesmerising this Christmas as she was last year as the prima ballerina, Irina, replaced by the young Vicky Page in The Red Shoes – who was played by Ashley Shaw. The New Adventures company really is, to coin a phrase, strong and stable, and that strength is on show here. This Cinderella is very much an ensemble piece with many of the most successful scenes featuring most of the group who show they don’t just do ballet – they can lindy hop and jitterbug as well.
So, fine dancing, wonderful music and an idea that should make for a magical Christmas show. And it very nearly works. So what’s the problem? There is perhaps just too much music for Bourne to fill so there are longueurs throughout when ARP wardens and gas mask dogs have their moment in the spotlight for no obvious reason and certainly in no way advance the plot. And this is the second problem with this production. The plot, out of its fairy tale context, no longer makes much sense. Why are there suddenly (nauseous and creepy) step-brothers as well as step-sisters? How does the wicked step-mother, who has drifted through the evening in a miasma of self-obsessed languor, suddenly find the energy or inclination to smother Cinders? Why is our hero cavorting with prostitutes on the underground and getting beaten up by thugs?
So, this is not the seasonal panto type ballet you might be expecting from its title. It does have some wonderful dance moments, though, and if you’re not after too much sugar coating, this could be the Christmas show for you. It’s a dark, adult version of the story, however. Best leave the kids at home.
Matthew Bourne’s Cinderella at Sadler’s Wells, Rosebery Ave, Clerkenwell, London EC1R 4TN, until 27th January 2018 prior to a UK tour that will include Bristol Hippodrome. For more information and tickets please visit the website.