Not since Susan Stroman's Contact has there been a sexier or more exhilarating evening of narrative dance drama than Matthew Bourne's Play Without Words. The show - which premiered as part of the Lyttelton Transformation season of new work the summer before last and subsequently won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Entertainment - has made a welcome return to the National, a shape-shifting and genre-stretching evening that's as distinctive as it is original.
Devised and directed by Matthew Bourne, who also choreographed it with the company, it's a major development from an artist who, developing existing works of ballet like Swan Lake and The Nutcracker, or musicals from Oliver! to My Fair Lady, has previously provided brilliant glosses on familiar territory.
But with Play, Bourne has gone into uncharted waters, and - like the painter Georges Seurat in Sondheim's musical Sunday in the Park with George - faces a blank page or canvas: "So many possibilities," says Seurat in that show, and Bourne demonstrates just how many there are, as he paints into life, in duplicate or triplicate, the relationships between a wealthy young man Anthony (Sam Archer / Ewan Wardrop / Richard Winsor), his fiancée, his manservant, a maid, and an old friend.
As multiple dancers play each character, sometimes in unison, but more often that not performing subtle, constantly surprising variations of each interaction, an extraordinary theatrical tension is generated. You will not want to avert your eyes from the stage for a moment in case you miss a single second.
Set in the swinging London of 1965, there are undercurrents of a different kind of swinging as the parties variously swap affections and more, while the manservant, Prentice (Scott Ambler / Steve Kirkham / Eddie Nixon), looks on, quietly exerting his power as he manipulates their desires.
Inspired by Joseph Losey's film The Servant (itself based on Robin Maugham's play that was revived at Lyric Hammersmith in 2001), Play offers a teasing, tantalising texture of alluring couplings that unfold as Anthony coolly rejects his fiancée (Saranne Curtin / Michela Meazza / Emily Piercy) in favour of the housemaid (Belinda Lee Chapman / Valentina Forementi), while Speight (Eddie Nixon / Alan Vincent / Ewan Wardrop), an old friend, in turn takes up with the fiancée.
Performed to a wonderfully evocative, sultry jazz soundtrack by Terry Davies on a revolving jungle-frame of a set by Lez Brotherston that has models of Centrepoint, the Post Office Tower, a London bus and phone boxes looming over it, this is thrilling theatre of startling physical movements that reveal dark emotions.