Last night I went to see Matthew Bourne’s radical updating of Cinderella at Sadler’s Wells. The conceit of the whole show is that it is London during the Blitz; Cinderella (Kerry Biggin, I think, rather than Mikah Smillie) is the forgotten child of a family of six, with two stepsisters and three stepbrothers, including one I would call “grabby” as he constantly making a move toward Cinders (a problem NOT in any version of this story I’d seen before!). Rather than a ball, the family is heading out to the Cafe de Paris nightclub; rather than a prince and a castle, we have an airman (Sam Archer, I believe) and the promise of a life rather more mundane than fairytale (but happy nonetheless).
Still, Bourne fixes clearly on the important emotional elements are: the feeling of being excluded; the desire to be wanted; a chance to experience the admiration of others after a lifetime in the shadows; the attempt to fix a “near miss” at love. A dance and shoes seem to be required for flavor, but a fancy coach is gone. The father element has become more tragic with his transformation into a man confined to a wheelchair. Overall, the magical elements have been pulled away and a painful, yet believable, story is left behind. Panto drag stepsisters gone? I say hurray; this kind of comedy is a distraction to the story.
The ballet is in three acts. It starts slowly with the character-setting first act. Our evil stepsisters are glamorous 40s debutantes; the very wicked stepmother (Michela Meazza, looking like she does in every Bourne show) is an alcoholic Joan Crawford type who really seems to be seconds away from pulling out a wire hanger; the brothers are in term lewd, louche, and mommy-fixated. There is a burst of energy as invites to a dance arrive; but it’s actually far more exciting when an injured airman shows up seeking shelter. This isn’t a part of the story we expect, and it adds a real edge: where did he come from? When is he going to appear again? Since when does the stepmother go for Cinderella’s love interest? The dancing itself in this act is forgettable, aside from the bit when Cinderella tries to dance with her paraplegic father and her dance with the mannequin/Prince substitute. It’s a relief when the fairy shows up and spirits her out of her house and into the rubble-strewn streets of London; I found we spent far too much time in her stifling house and were not nearly entertained enough while we were there.
Act two is the voyage to and arrival at the ball. Some of the best lighting design comes as Cinderella and the Airman find and lose each other in the darkened streets of Blitz London; street patrols illuminate and block them as they rush back and forth trying to find each other. They finally wind up together at the Café de Paris, which the program notes is “Cinderella’s dream and nightmare:” look up the history of this place (it’s in the notes) if you need to know why. I found all of my ability to enjoy the spectacle of dancing overwhelmed by the heavy weight of impending death as I waited for the bomb to strike the restaurant. It changes the whole feeling of this scene from anything it was before to a Masque of the Red Death, rather than Cinderella’s triumph; she escapes, alive, with the man she loves, but with the rest of the dancers dead (apparently the band leader had his head blown off in real life, I found myself very creeped out by this), there’s no joy in it. I was also very confused by how she went from mousy brown to a platinum blonde in this scene, though I just loved her glamorous white gown.
Act three has the best design of the show, with a delicious hospital ward created by a glowing red cross hovering in the air and white curtained panels moved around by doctors and nurses. The Airman is searching for Cinderella, which gives us the opportunity for a rather salacious scene in a prostitute-filled Tube station as well as a violent encounter on the Embankment; truly, in war, all the rules of morality have gone by the wayside, and anyone can be a victim. Eventually, as required, we have our reunion for the two lovers; deliciously, the stepmother is taken to jail. We finish at a train station, bidding goodbye to the newlyweds while the fairy finds another person needing some magic in their lives.
It’s taken me rather a lot of time to chew through how I felt about this production and whether or not I thought it worth recommending. During it I found myself feeling very distant from the action on stage; I was never caught up by the dance, even though I enjoyed thought the solos of the fairy (actually referenced as “the angel” in the program, and because there was no cast sheet I can’t say for certain who was playing it the night I saw it) . I did, however, love the set, lighting, and luscious 40s costuming; the grey palette (a deliberate homage to black and white movies) felt less like a pushy design decision and more like something that caught the austerity and gloom of war-time London. Ultimately, I think, I’m going to say yes to this Cinderella, not just because it is beautiful, but because its reworking of the story, its Bourne-ian deconstruction to the heart of the matter, succeeds better in telling the tale than any straightforward rendition would have. It showed me a new side of the classic, and, while I would have preferred more dancing, I left feeling like I’d managed to pick up a little more magic in the air than there had been before I went in the room. Who would think that by removing nearly every bit of unreality from this story Bourne would create something more universal than what he started with? It’s not perfect, but it’s a good night of theater, and my guess is that as a Cinderella, I’ll be thinking of this story much longer than any version with gawping comedy stepsisters stomping around on the stage and making a spectacle of themselves, because it’s not, after all, their story; it’s hers.
(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, December 7th, 2010. Cinderella continues at Sadler’s Wells through January 23rd, 2011. For a more positive view, see Judith Mackrell in The Guardian; for one capturing my frustration with the dance, see the always eloquent Clement Crisp of the Financial Times.)