Matthew Bourne first made his version of Cinderella in 1997 on the back of the enormous success of his Swan Lake. I always loved it, but the version he is presenting twenty years later is stronger, tighter and more emotionally charged.
The choreographer’s masterstroke is to realise that the propulsive thrust of Prokofiev’s haunting, melancholic score is about the passage of time. Cinderella is always racing against the clock, snatching her moment of happiness as the minute hand ticks towards midnight. This frenzied sense of seizing life while you can is perfectly suited to a setting during the London Blitz, when the besieged inhabitants of the city lived in the knowledge that every moment might be their last.
The designer Lez Brotherston has provided stunning, stylised sets that not only capture a city in peril, with jagged, bombed-out buildings framing the action, but also recreate the glittering Café de Paris, famously hit by a bomb in 1941, where a blast-dazed Cinderella dreams of being at the ball and where courting couples waltz with desperate passion.
He uses a limited colour palette of greys and deep blues, punctuated by the odd burst of colour – the red fires of devastation, Cinderella’s white dress, a Red Cross worker’s scarlet cape. He also uses specific London scenes – the shadow of St Paul’s, the glowing light of an underground station – to set the action within a specific place and time.
In this stunning context, Bourne radically rethinks and reinvents the fairy story. It begins, conventionally enough, in a drab mansion where poor Cinders – in spectacles and neat grey skirt – is put upon not only by her step-mother and step-sisters (ugly only on the inside) but by an entire family of step-siblings, including a creepy, shoe-fetishist. When magic forces appear they come not in the shape of a fairy godmother but of a white-suited male Angel, who slides down the crooked mantelpiece and brings the lonely child her Prince, in the shape of a wounded RAF Pilot.
He then guides her through the Blitz to bring about a truly happy ending, not the delirious rapture of an imaginary desire, but the settled, gentle love of marriage and a life together.
En route, Bourne creates a dark, whirring world of wonderfully expressive choreography, full of longing and emotion. There’s a wonderful scene when Cinderella dances with a tailor’s dummy who turns into her dashing Pilot but one who dances with the clumsiness of a dummy, as if her imagination can only carry her so far. And there’s a terrific running joke about her glasses; she keeps taking them off to look better, but then her lover doesn’t recognise her.
Ballet lovers will recognise affectionate tributes to the great British choreographers Kenneth MacMillan (in the passionate duet of fulfilled love, and in the partnering in the ballroom scene) and to Frederick Ashton’s own Cinderella in the bobbing heads of the comic entrance for the step-family. There are also strong references to films such as A Matter of Life and Death. But the way the ballet comes together, full of witty moments, is entirely Bourne, including a tiny sub-plot about the gay brother who also finds love, and a clever reimagining of the Prince’s journey round the world that sets the Pilot amongst prostitutes, thieves and upper-class riff-raff.
It is storytelling of the highest order and brilliantly served by the dancers, who seem to get better and better. Ashley Shaw is a swooning, dramatic Cinderella, each moment of her sadness carefully registered, each dawning of hope fully communicated. As the Angel, Liam Mower is both sharp and slightly sinister. Andrew Monaghan is a perfect Pilot, anguished but loving, while the outstanding Michela Meazza seizes the role of the truly evil step-mother whose glamorous exterior disguises a murderous heart and makes it both funny and frighteningly cruel. Terrific.
Matthew Bourne's Cinderella runs at Sadler's Well until 28 January and then tours.