It's hard to get away from the misogyny inherent in a story of a young woman brought back to life by a kiss, but director and choreographer Matthew Bourne does his best in this luxurious and witty retelling of the classic fairy tale, which returns to Sadler's Wells following its premiere here in 2012.
It's not just any old chap that can waken this Princess Aurora from her hundred-year slumber – she can only be rescued from the dark fairy's curse by Leo, the palace gamekeeper, a man she already knows and loves. Beginning the action with Aurora's babyhood in 1890 is a clever move, allowing a leap from buttoned up Victorian times to the present day via the Princess's young adulthood in the early 19th century, a time when social conventions were relaxing and women were beginning to assert themselves. It also gives designer Lez Brotherston a chance to really let rip with the costumes – this is time travelling with bustles and hoodies, top hats and jeans.
Bourne's great skill is in conveying a modern sensibility without jarring too much against either the conventions of our beloved fairy tales or Tchaikovsky's stirring music. He plays with form in the same way, hilariously sending up classical ballet one minute, with absurd solos from the good fairies that protect Aurora, while presenting sumptuous, unironic moments featuring the corps de ballet the next. Bourne knows where to find our nostalgia buttons, and he's not afraid to push them.
His take on the story doesn't always sit entirely comfortably within Tchaikovsky's score. The long dreamlike sequence that precedes Leo's discovery of the sleeping Aurora, while beautifully performed, is narratively muddled and feels like padding. And the jump from the moment of Aurora's greatest peril to her rescue (spoiler alert: they all live happily ever after), is too sudden – if the composer was in the room, you'd ask him to write an extra few bars to bring about a smoother transition here.
For the most part, however, the narrative is crystal clear, helped along by atmospheric lighting design from Paule Constable, and assured performances from Ashley Shaw as the spirited Princess Aurora, Dominic North as her smitten gamekeeper, and Adam Maskell as both Carabosse the dark fairy (a threatening nod to the benevolent dames lording it over pantomines across town) and her vengeful son Caradoc. A story that could have been saccharine is leant a darkness and edge by the subtle sexual tension in Aurora's early encounters with Caradoc and, in a more cleancut way, with her beau Leo. Sleeping Beauty is a family show, but that doesn't mean there isn't plenty here here for adults too.