Celebrating the twentieth anniversary of its creation, this pristine revival of Matthew Bourne’s Cinderella is a very welcome choice for Sadler’s Wells annual Matthew Bourne winter season.
Matthew Bourne’s Cinderella sits alongside Bourne’s other works that are based on pre-existing classical ballets. While Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake retained the concept of the original while creatively adding all manner of marvellously creative new scenes, Cinderella more closely follows the structure of the original classical ballet. Bourne ingeniously updates the work to London at the time of the Blitz, which was also the time at which Sergei Prokofiev was writing the original ballet’s score.
The 1940 setting adds tense layers of danger and desperation, offsetting the inherent sweetness of the swirling central romance to create a well balanced, gripping and affecting story.
During the prologue, the mournful opening bars of Prokofiev’s haunting score accompany a cinema newsreel showing dramatic scenes of London burning during the Blitz.
The curtain rises on Cinderella sweeping the floor as her aged, wheelchair-bound Father sits blankly by the fire. In addition to the usual ugly (of heart) Step Sisters and wicked Step Mother, Cinderella also waits on three Step Brothers . Rationing means nothing to Sybil, the Step Mother, who indulges in black market liquor and stockings. All characters, in fact, have quirks and flaws like this, a hallmark of Bourne’s fertile imagination and meticulous attention to storytelling detail.
While the act one visit to Cinderella’s home from the Pilot (the equivalent character to the Prince) is a deviation from the original ballet, the act still ends with Cinderella and Angel (her Fairy Godfather) dancing amongst the celestial bodies. Before this journey to the moon, a bomb blast was heard, and act two opens on a scene of fire, strewn bodies and general devastation. Angel’s magic wipes away the chaos and soon Café de Paris glistens under festive fairy lights.
Bourne provides a remarkable vocabulary of highly physicalised dance for the partygoers. Aware of the potent threat that they could all be dead tomorrow, the revellers throw all their energy into dance.
Dressed in white tulle skirt with glittering metallic silver bodice, Cinderella draws every eye as she enters. Quickly ensconced as the belle of the ball, men fawn over her and women envy her. In an intriguing subplot, one Step Brother meets a dashing pilot, and this relationship is given approval by his mother Sybil, in the sense that “anything goes” during wartime.
Cinderella and Pilot represent their post-coital bliss with a rapturous pas de deux before the clock strikes midnight, at which time bombs fall and buildings collapse precariously. Cinderella’s limp body is carried by stretcher from the rubble, leaving behind a single sparkling shoe.
In line with the opening of act three of the original ballet, the Pilot is seen searching for the woman who fits the shoe. He visits Piccadilly Circus tube station, a hot bed of male and female prostitution. No luck at Embankment either, but we all know a happy ending is eventually on the way. Bourne ramps up the significance of the final scene, combining Cinderella and her Pilot’s bliss with the bittersweet joy of wartime reunions.
Working on an impressively grand scale, Lex Brotherston has delivered another highly accomplished design. While there are elements of realism, the settings are framed by housing facades in a state of dire disrepair. Brotherston begins with a film noir effect, presenting all sets and costumes in shades of grey. Café de Paris sees the addition of red lamps, tablecloths and stairs, with golden fairy lights twinkling overhead, and muted shades of colour are gradually added to ensemble costumes.
The transition back to pre-bombing Café de Paris is a beautiful sequence, and the bomb damage at the end of act two is frighteningly realistic. Each of these effects, and many more, are greatly enhanced by the work of lighting designer Neil Austin.
At this performance, Cinderella was played by Australian-born dancer Ashley Shaw. Brotherston somehow manages to make Shaw look plain as Cinderella, with her mousy brown hair in a tight bun and her face obscured by round glasses. Shaw creates two distinct characterisations, linked by a tender fragility and a loving heart. Entering Café de Paris, Shaw walks with Cinderella’s newfound confidence, an esteem she can barely believe is real or possible. Shaw dances with sweeping beauty, elevating every partner with her focused, seemingly effortless work.
Dominic North is perfectly cast as the Pilot, his handsome, clean-cut looks and noble jaw making him every inch the heroic aviator. North uses his long, lean limbs to great effect when bringing to life the dressmaker’s dummy that Cinderella dances with. As experienced and talented an actor as he is a dancer, North ensures that the Pilot’s solo dancing remains entirely masculine, and his sensitive facial expression allows him to garner full support and sympathy from the audience.
Liam Mower has matured into a supremely elegant dancer, his work also well balanced with a masculine stage presence. Mower portrays Angel as a self confident spirit of great compassion. The character of Angel gives Mower licence to dance as if he is the only person on stage, and his work is so good that this could easily be the case.
Photos: Jonah Persson (note: photos show Andrew Monaghan as Pilot)