Review: New Adventures — Matthew Bourne’s Early Adventures - Sadler's Wells
Performance reviewed: 4th April 2017
The phrase ‘accessible’, when applied to art, carries a snobbish stigma. It suggests easy art, mass market art, deliberately made to please crowds and cuddle clichés. The adjective ‘accessible’ is the flipside to art that is challenging, discomfiting, ‘real’.
But accessibility can also mean something else. It can mean art that aims to include everyone regardless of ‘expertise’ in any given subject, that is generous in its reach and prizes cheering clarity over thought-provoking difficulty. Matthew Bourne has earned the moniker ‘Britain’s favourite choreographer’ by epitomising this kind of big-hearted accessibility, and this night of Early Adventures – three shows from early in his choreographic career – demonstrate that his artistic aim has always leant on accessibility, openness and finding a common denominator of joy in his audience.
The first piece, Watch with Mother, is set in a stage simply dressed as a school gym, with the dancers in school uniform. Bright, precise, playroom-friendly music – notably Percy Grainger’s piano compositions – set us firmly in a tongue-in-cheek nostalgic conception of The Blissful British Childhood. The dancers, all flicky, tricky, stomping skips and ostentatiously gallops, cavort about the place with the special looseness of children seconds away from throwing a tantrum. In fact, though deliberately camp and silly, there is a dark undercurrent of tantrum to the piece, and Tom Clark is singled out as the awkward, bullied boy whose body literally curls over itself with anxiety and shame as the other children pick on him. But don’t worry, as with all nice Enid Blyton-esque tales, they all make up in the end.
Town and Country, split over an interval, is another piece that utilises campness in quietly provocative ways. It also does something which I have rarely seen a wordless contemporary dance piece do, viz, have the audience actually doubling over with laughter. It is testament to the skill of the dancers that the slapstick energy that the choreography demands never ebbs or sags.
The first galf, ‘Town’, is set in the Keep Calm and Carry On world of a long-gone, probably-never-existent Britain, which Bourne sends up to great comic effect. Grown adults in 1940s coats whizz across the stage on scooters; money-spoiled bourgeoisie types are washed and dressed with waltzy jollity by their simpering servants; two versions of Brief Encounter, set to the same devastating melodramatic bars of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, are extravagantly mimed side by side, but with one version managing the longed-for happy ending that David Lean’s ill-starred couple never succeed in achieving. All these scenes of physical comedy and deceptively simple phrasework are the backdrop to a quiet, awkward, tender gay romance blossoming in one corner of the stage.
‘Country’ takes place in a Mother Goose version of bucolic charm (or in the Spitting Image version of *La Fille Mal Gardée*…), with eighteenth century smock coats, jodhpurs and tweed dominating the costume design. Puppets of favourite British country animals pop up at the side of a knees-up clog duet, only for the hapless hedgehog to be stomped to death.
The piece feels both timeless in its particular amused engagement with clichés of British identity – or rather, the daydream idealist idea of the British identity – and also surprisingly on point. In 1991, when Town and Country was first performed, vintage fashion, craft nostalgia, that infamous bloody poster and its spin-offs, had not yet seized hold of the popular imagination, and the jokes made at its expense would have addressed a humorous fantasy version of Britishness. Now, that humorous fantasy version of Britishness has wormed its way into political discourse, and the gag of its existence seems rather pertinent.
On the subject of pertinence, the final piece, The Infernal Galop, which looks at clichés of French identity from a British point of view, is strangely poignant in the light of Brexit. The affection and wit with which Bourne addresses his ‘Franglais Spectacular’ feels like a beacon of hopeful happiness in a world awash with sundering gloom. Particularly notable were: an evocative piece of music, La Mer by Charles Trenet and Albert Lasry, is danced by a ‘merman’ in sock suspenders and a rather nice peacock-coloured dressing gown; and the infernal gallop itself, as the can-can is properly called, performed as if reluctantly marked to Jacques Offenbach’s immediately recognisable music, hilariously deadpan.
Droll, daft and delightful, as pat and fun as triplet alliteration, Early Adventures provides the guffaws we so need, and is a cheering example of work from a choreographer understandably beloved.
Ka Bradley is a writer and editor based in London. Her reviews have appeared in Exeunt, The Stage and londondance.com. Her fiction has appeared in Granta, Catapult, The Offing, Minor Literature[s] and Somesuch Stories.