Takingaway the pumpkins, carriages, fairy godmothers and all that is sweet and lovely about Cinderella as we know it, choreographer and director Matthew Bourne throws the well-known fairytale into the harsh reality of the Blitz. There’s not a tutu in sight. This stripping away of convention is the first step to making this production something beautifully unique.
Combining traditional ballet with contemporary dance and 1940s dancehall routines worked beautifully in Bourne’s capable hands. It’s totally organic, not gimmicky or flashy. Against its backdrop of splendid sets and heavy-duty context, this effortless mix meant his style was as embracing of its new audience as its aficionados, and was totally a joy to behold.
It’s not about some Black Swan-style cold execution of the perfect pirouette (although the dancers are indeed flawless). There was a charming, deliberate imperfection to many of the ensemble dance scenes, as partners paired up in a carefree party spirit, unsure of the other’s next move. Yet, not one movement was wasted. Although most of the time there were many characters on stage to observe at once, everything each individual dancer did developed their character or moved the story along. This was some fierce storytelling. This was not chocolate box imagery and superhuman ballet expertise. For the most part, the costumes, even at the ball, were grey and austere, in keeping with that wartime theme. Bourne also used Pathe newsreel footage to add to the poignancy of his setting.
Serge Provokfiev’s score – written during WWII – filled the Empire’s auditorium and swelled in the heart. Unusually, we were listening to a recording of the 82-piece Cinderella UK Orchestra, but the quality was remarkable. Set in three 40 minute acts with two intervals, the pace was swift as it first set the scene, with Cinderella’s gruesome family receiving their invites to the ball, and Cinders’s guardian angel character encouraging our heroine out onto the streets. The second act, the ballroom scene, was simply unforgettable as the Café de Paris ballroom was flattened in an air raid. In the final act, our dashing RAF pilot hero Harry scoured the war-torn streets of London to find his Cinderella.
The lavish sets were simply a theatrical dream. The influence of the Hollywood glamour of the day, and the Brief Encounter-inspired ending was a perfect romantic touch. It’s not often a touring production rolls up that feels as if no expense has been spared rather than being a budget version of a West End success, and Cinderella was an absolute treat in that regard, a feast for the senses with a real heart and soul.
Maybe it’s good timing, but with the anniversary of the Liverpool Blitz and the Royal Wedding, the very Britishness of this production just melted the heart, bringing out an unexpected patriotic warmth. Often in this city, we end up watching local productions and wondering if they have enough about them to translate ten miles down the road. With Cinderella, it’s a safe bet you could watch this on any stage in the world and it would be just as much of a sensation. That’s got to fill you with pride.
Other critics have said that this production lacked something in comparison to Matthew Bourne’s last work, Swan Lake, that came to the Empire last year. For those unable to compare the two, it seems impossible that anything could top this memorable, beautiful production.
Cinderella runs at the Empire until Saturday (April 30).