(Sadler’s Wells, London, until 27 January 2018)
My heart broke a little on Friday afternoon. I realised that Matthew Bourne’s Cinderella had returned to Sadler’s Wells this winter and was now completely sold out until the end of its run. I’d missed its last run too and had been similarly upset then, but good fortune came to my rescue. By chance, it had been broadcast on BBC2 over Christmas (I’d missed that too) and was still available on iPlayer. On Saturday afternoon, as the sullen wind rattled the sash windows, I curled up with a cup of tea and a blanket and sank happily into this reimagined fairy tale, set in the depths of the London Blitz. It’s classic Bourne, half ballet and half drama, with a dark substrata to its glittering fantasy.
Once upon a time, there was a girl and her name was Cinderella. Our wartime Cinders (Ashley Shaw) is a mousy creature, self-effacing in glasses and grey, her hair primly pulled back in a bun. She cares for her invalid father (Alan Vincent) – a former army officer reduced to a wheelchair – and keeps the house tidy for her icily elegant stepmother (Michela Meazza) and her gaggle of stepsiblings. There are the inevitable stepsisters, caustic and sneering, ugly within rather than without, but Cinders also has three stepbrothers. One is a camp, self-absorbed amateur couturier; another is a brattish child with a passion for guns and planes; but the third is Cinders’s nemesis: an oily stalker with an unpleasant fetish for shoes. This dysfunctional household is thrown into chaos by the arrival of invitations to a ball at the Cafe de Paris, London’s most dazzling nightspot. All the stepsiblings get an invitation, but there’s nothing left for Cinders: her stepmother withholds the last for herself, hoping that the ball with provide plenty of her two favourite things, gin and willing young men.
But there’s comfort in store for Cinders. An Angel (Liam Mower) has been watching over her – not a feathery-winged angel, but one of the Wim Wenders mould (this being a ballet, he’s decked out in a shining white suit). He guides a wounded fighter pilot (Andrew Monaghan) to Cinders’s door, and man and girl immediately glimpse the possibility for something beautiful beyond the pain and drudgery of their daily life. But their tête-a-tête is ruined by the noisy arrival of the stepfamily, ready for the festivities, and the Pilot flees. Cinders, in her turn, has been shown that the world has more to offer her than she ever dreamed. When her odious family have gone off to the Cafe de Paris, she packs her things and sets off resolutely into the night – right into the path of a terrible air raid.
For all their camp colour and dazzle, Bourne’s ballets have dark undertones. The Car Man and Swan Lake both riff in different ways on toxic masculinity and the way that strangers can unlock something powerful within ourselves. The latter is true also of Cinderella, as the Pilot and Angel both open doors for Cinders to escape her miserable world. But there is something even more sobering about this show. The ball at the Cafe de Paris takes place on the night that the club was bombed (8 March 1941) and the party scene begins with the Angel surveying the clutter and the broken bodies, before magically turning back time. The chandelier rises up, the lights flash back on, the patrons snap upright, and the stage is set for Cinders’s stunning entrance. But even the Angel isn’t all powerful and Cinders must leave before the stroke of midnight, not because of pumpkins or mice, but because with midnight the spell will break and the bomb will hit. And the party is all the most intoxicating, all the more wild, because it’s been snatched back from the claws of time and this night can never be had again.
There’s even less ballet than usual here: closer to The Car Man than to Swan Lake or Sleeping Beauty, both of which had more classical choreography. Prokoviev’s score becomes the basis for dance inspired by tango, waltz and even more modern dance forms; but in many scenes, it’s about pure movement rather than dance itself. The narrative, not the choreography, is king – and that’s why I love Bourne’s interpretations of ballet, because they’re so accessible. He has a deep feeling for gracefulness, but he’s willing to play with it and to subvert conventions: take, for example, the wonderful scene where Cinders dances with a wooden mannequin, which transforms itself in her dreams into her handsome Pilot – who nevertheless insists on dancing in a lumpen, wooden style. There are elements I recognised from other ballets: the vampish (step)mother appears both here and in Swan Lake, while some of the Angel’s choreography looked very similar to movements made by the Swan – both of them representing the Mysterious Stranger, or perhaps the True Inner Self, to lead our protagonists to their destiny.
Bourne’s ballets probably aren’t for purists, as I’ve said before, but for the rest of us they’re wonderful introductions to the great stories of the canon. Cinderella is glamorous and sexy, with only a few moments where the pace sags a little (I felt that the Pilot spent a little too much time in the second half running around with the slipper). The staging is absolutely superb, with rubble and searchlights helping to set the scene, and the London setting is deeply, consistently evoked. It’s not my favourite of Bourne’s works – that’s still Swan Lake (which is coming to Sadler’s Wells next Christmas!) – but it’s another sleek, wildly creative reinterpretation of the classics. If you’re in the UK and have a free evening before 25 January, you could do worse than seek out this little piece of magic.