Review: Matthew Bourne - Cinderella - Sadler's Wells

Performance: 9 December - 17 January
Reviewed by Rachel Nouchi - Thursday 21 December 2017

Matthew Bourne is back with an updated version of his sweeping musical ballet Cinderella – a re-imagining of the tale set in the London Blitz; a drab, monochrome world of buttoned up grey cardigans and neat slicked back hair, lit only by the flickering fire burning quietly in the corner of the stage.

Marking the 70th anniversary of the Blitz, Bourne has set his fairytale in 1941 wartime Britain swapping prince for David Niven style pilot, Cinderella as a dowdy ‘frump’ and stepmother as the production’s very own Joan Crawford.

Bourne borrows ideas and imagery from celluloid to translate onstage with powerful effect. The staging is faultless thanks to Lez Brotherston’s dashing costumes and sets, which won an Olivier Award for his original designs, lighting by Olivier Award-winning Neil Austin and the characters lifted from his favourite films.

Enter Cinderella’s household, a cross between the Adams Family and a Powell-Pressburger production and we are transported into the quirky world that Cinderella must endure and navigate to find her love interest among the freaky sideshow oddities of her extended family. There’s a stepbrother caressing her feet in a foot festish frenzy to spinning dad in wheelchair and a fur-clad stepmother who anyone would be terrified to meet on a dark night, blitz or otherwise.

From the outset, the audience is plunged into the greyness of wartime Britain with news footage screens delivering serious information delivered by the plummy voices of Pathe, advising the nation how to best tackle air-raids.

Ironically, the mood shifts from the sheer comedy of watching public information films viewed through contemporary eyes, to the troubling footage of London burning. Such irony maintains itself successfully through the show allowing often brutal imagery of a country at war to rub up against a lighter touch through dance, splashes of colour and the relentless pursuit of love.

Bourne and Brotherston are a dream-team as movement and sets dissolve seamlessly from the drab of Cinderella’s kitchen pitch to air-raid scenes and on to Café de Paris – the dancehall moment where we are treated to colour albeit bathed in deep, seductive red – the perfect foil to Cinderella bejewelled pure white.

As Bourne says, one of the reasons he set Cinderella in wartime was to highlight narrative parallels – from the idea that somebody goes missing, to using escapism during times of adversity in the form of dancehalls, offering dance, glamour and colour as a break from the brutalities of war.

There are notable performances from Ashley Shaw as Cinderella who transforms herself from a mousey downtrodden specimen to sequined back arching beauty – where the pilots literally line-up fawning all over her. Liam Mower as her male guardian angel donned in a camp white satin suit effortlessly glides and swerves circles around her, creating mists of magic as he moves, whilst Michela Meazza as film-noir fur clad step mum slinks and slithers in perfect doses of ease and evil.

There are clever touches in the choreography too. Dreaming of the ball, Cinderella dances with a dressmaker’s dummy. Bourne wanted it to look like Cinderella was initiating everything and in a quick dash behind a curtain, she dances with her pilot for real – who quickly returns to the dummy again.

Prokoviev’s original score for Cinderella, created during the Second World War is bleak and beautiful and this latest version offers audiences surround sound, designed by Paul Groothuis, featuring a specially commissioned recording played by a 60 piece orchestra- yet it misses out on the deeper resonance allowed by a live orchestra.

Audiences must take into account that Cinderella is neither ballet or musical but sits somewhere in between giving credence to skeletal choreography. There’s emphasis on walking – building on the bustle of public life and projecting intricate language of gestures known to those familiar with Bourne’s other works.

Such a format allows for a complex narrative with its multiple set changes and characters for space in between the bigger dance showpiece numbers.
And there’s no better example of this than in the larger group ensembles such as the finale – allowing for entire cast to genuinely fizzle in a joyful fusion of colour and music to dance the jitterbug.

Cinderella was reviewed by Rachel Nouchi. Rachel is a writer/movement researcher from Royal Central School of Speech and Drama and contributes arts based features and reviews covering UK performance. You can find her on Twitter @NouchiR

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