There can be no more delightful way to spend an evening at the theatre than with a trio of vintage Matthew Bourne pieces. Revived to celebrate the 30th anniversary of his company New Adventures, Bourne’s Early Adventures are far from unformed juvenilia. All three are elegantly crafted, wonderfully danced and expertly pitched between satire and sentiment, though perhaps the prevailing sweetness of the latter dates the works somewhat.
This is especially true of Infernal Galop, Bourne’s witty, campy, can-canning ode to France. The programme notes declare that the danced vignettes conjure up “France as seen by the uptight British imagination.” If only. In these post-Brexit days, through the crabbed eyes of a remoaner, it’s almost hard to stomach such breezily innocent tropes when the plaster of the European project has been ripped away to expose an oozing English pustule of xenophobic fear, resentment and political skulduggery.
Still, Bourne’s “du vin, du pain, du Boursin” tableaux are delicious nonetheless. Dancers in 1930s garb and berets spin through spikily impressionistic motions, like slinky students of the Sorbonne whose nonchalant sophistication and intellectualism comes bathed in strong coffee fumes. Naturally, most sequences riff on sex. To the strains of La Mer, three spry matelots pay tribute to a gloriously effete merman in a green silk bathrobe and sock suspenders. Two girls dance passionately to Piaf, draping velvet fabric about themselves with melodramatic flourishes. They sink down with arms outflung and crumple in despair before stalking offstage, an undeniable chic to their suffering. A quartet of dancers trace a continental grand amour through ever-shifting configurations of couplings. Then there’s a gloomily lit pissoir that becomes the site of various rendezvous between blokes, who are routinely interrupted by an overly enthusiastic street band brandishing maracas and accordions. The showy pizazz of Offenbach’s can-can culminates in a slumped line of dancers whose faces express only blankly bored hauteur. Bof.
Town and Country is a celebration and piss-take of a certain mythologised brand of Englishness. It’s a merry affair in which everyone’s white and contentedly in their place. A maid and valet vigorously loofah their Bright Young Thing-esque mistress and master through languid bath-time, before deftly dancing them into shirt and slacks. The stiff upper lip is given a five minute whirl via a clever distillation of Brief Encounter embellished by catty waiters. There are strains of subcultural subversiveness – one elegantly coiffed gent sets aside his embroidery to join another in a tender, lingering pas de deux. We see them later, larking about on a bicycle with a picnic hamper as the other dancers whizz by on scooters, legs extended in flighty arabesques. This Is England – jolly and jaunty, like Brideshead without the grief.
The ‘country’ part of takes its cue from Frederick Ashton’s La Fille mal gardee. It’s set in pre-industrial idyll happily inhabited by smock-clad peasants who partake in coy hay-rolling, seed-scattering and muscular, musical udder squeezing. The joy is punctured only by the death of a hedgehog who receives a glancing blow from a clog and, consequently, a sombre funeral procession. There’s a strange sadness, a restrained Anglo-Saxon melancholia, in the dance that follows – patrician boys and girls in jodhpurs and tweed respond almost mystically to Eric Coates’ music. With weighted yet wafting movements of the arms they caress the land beneath them and peregrinate into dreamy patterns.
Nostalgia permeates the opening work, Watch With Mother. It’s an evocation of 1950s schooldays set to the clipped tones of Joyce Grenfell and music by Percy Grainger. An involuntary clenching of the sphincter tends to occur whenever performers don school uniform and pretend to be six years old, but these dancers never descend into clownish infantilism. Lads gambol around and gad about with arms like aeroplane wings, while a ferocious gang of pinafored girls encroach upon a solitary boy, whose contorting solo evokes currents of shame, sadness and all the bewilderment of the latency period. When, at the end, he’s invited kindly back into the group that shunned him, it feels a little glib, an easy sanitisation of children’s inventive cruelty. Still, the triptych as a whole is a great testament to Bourne’s fine-tuned combination of theatrical imagination, choreographic intelligence and bountiful humour.
Early Adventures is on until 8th April 2017 at Sadler’s Wells. Click here for more details.