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Matthew Bourne's The Midnight Bell

Sadlers Wells Theatre, London until October 9
By Jarlath O'Connell
Published on October 9, 2021

Matthew Bourne's The Midnight Bell Matthew Bourne's The Midnight Bell. PHOTO: JOHAN PERSSON

Nine-time Olivier winner and double Tony winner Sir Matthew Bourne remains the UK's most popular and successful choreographer-director. His tours pack out venues and have brought whole new audiences to his popular narrative-driven dance pieces.

After a series of spectacles inspired by the big classics this one harkens back to his more chamber-like pieces such as Play without Words, which he based on Losey's great film The Servant.

This time the source material is a conflation of scenes from the novels of Patrick Hamilton, who wrote blockbuster melodramas like Rope and Gaslight, but who was also dubbed the “connoisseur of alcoholic behaviour.” His work was like the flip side of Noel Coward in that while being totally urban, he instead focused on the grimier underworld of Soho life in the '20s and '30s. These lonely-hearts characters all drown their sorrows in the Midnight Bell pub. We're given snapshots of ten characters including a waiter, a barmaid, a chorus boy, an out of work actress, a lonely spinster, and a cad. They're all seeking connection, human contact and perhaps escape and we observe the ebb and flow of their tortured love affairs/sex lives and how they try to battle their personal demons.

Matthew Bourne's The Midnight Bell Bryony Wood and Paris Fitzpatrick in The Midnight Bell. PHOTO: JOHAN PERSSON

The ensemble company are top class and include long time Bourne dancers such as Richard Winsor who here plays the murderer character drawn from the novel Hangover Square. Liam Mower (the original Billy Elliott!) plays a West End chorus boy whose furtive gay romance with a young cop is beautifully rendered here. Their achingly tender duet is a highlight. As usual Bourne's choreography fuses theatrical colour and detailing with a traditional big classical style. This gives his set pieces their great emotional punch as he knows how to move an audience. This heart-on-the-sleeve bravura style is reminiscent of the Golden Age of Hollywood musicals and there's even a wink to Cyd Charisse's famous green dress here.

Lez Brotherston and Paule Constable's sets and lighting couldn't be more perfect. Both are regular Bourne collaborators and here they have exquisitely conjured up that whole gin-soaked, nicotine-stained world of seedy bedsits, rent-by-the-hour hotels, Lyons 'Corner House' tea rooms and damp streets, all illuminated by flickering neon.

Terry Davies is another member of Team Bourne and again he has delivered a melodic jazz-infused score which is by turns romantic and moody. It's complemented with some classic recordings of Porter, Gershwin and Berlin by such evocative artists of the period as Al Bowlly. The musical style is incredibly cinematic and there is an intense percussive charge to the love scenes which recalls the jibe about Hitchcock and how he staged seductions as if they were murder scenes and vice versa.

The one weakness of the piece is that it has too many characters. These are also not sufficiently delineated early on enough and so the audience doesn't really have enough time to connect fully with them, which is crucial for a narrative piece. He exacerbates it by doubling up the pairings in a scene, so we'll have two dramatic sexual encounters overlaid where one doesn't really comment on the other and the result is that the audience's focus is drained away from both stories.

Overall though this has so many of the great Bourne touches and it will deserve its large audiences. It eschews easy nostalgia but for fans of Bourne, and of this period and this milieu, it is well worth catching.

Matthew Bourne's The Midnight Bell Paris Fitzpatrick and Bryony Wood in The Midnight Bell. PHOTO: JOHAN PERSSON




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