I always arrive at a Matthew Bourne production expecting a casket of wonders, having experienced both the lush Gothic romance of Sleeping Beauty and psychological darkness of Swan Lake. Returning to the stage after debuting 20 years ago, Bourne’s Cinderella is set in 1940’s London against the backdrop of air sirens and blackouts.
The decision to set Cinderella in wartime London is not as random as it would first appear. Sergei Prokofiev wrote the score during the Second World War and this lends new depth to the moments of desperation and panic simmering underneath the bright liveliness of the music.
The first act is set in the living room of an elegant townhouse, an atmospheric but slightly too cluttered set for a ballet. The Ugly Sisters lounge around smoking in dressing gowns and the glamorous alcoholic stepmother, played by the captivating Anjali Mehra, are also joined by an extended family: a father, an injured pilot, and Cinderella dressed in dowdy clothes and spectacles.
Ashley Shaw’s Cinderella is far from being a doormat, and is instead wonderfully comical. Her waltz with the wooden dressmaking dummy is a magical piece of theatre and perfectly captures by her ability to go from doleful to gleeful in seconds. Her romantic counterpart, the RAF Pilot played by Will Bozier, also impresses with both his tormented performance as an injured soldier and his careless debonair charm at the ball in the tacky-yet-glamorous Café de Paris.
Lez Brotherston’s set is truly a thing of intricate magic, aside from the first overly cluttered scene. The rubble of war torn London and the smashed aftermath of Café de Paris are breathtaking, as is the painfully iconic scenes of London at night along the Embankment and the depths of the Underground. This is not just a backdrop for a ballet, but a love letter to Blitz London that almost begs to be filmed. Film and cinema are significant part of this production from the beginning with the projection of What to do in an Air Raid to an ending scene at Paddington Station which could be right out of Brief Encounter.
A well established trope in Bourne productions is for a traditionally female role – Swan Queen or Good Fairy – to be subverted into a male role, and this production is no exception. The Angel of Death, wonderfully dapper in a silver and white suit, watches over Cinderella and takes her dancing into the stars and clouds before driving her to the ball on a white motorcycle. He has more work cut out for him than his fairytale counterpart and we see him dashing off in the middle of the “ball” to intercept a bomb.
As thrilling as the dark romance of Café de Paris and the clanging of the air sirens is, the anticipation for the for the moment I await in all romantic ballets, the Pas de Deux, remained – I wasn’t disappointed. Cinderella and Harry the RAF Pilot dance against the silent, slightly macabre, glow of London on fire in a bare room with a rumpled bed. The stripped down costumes of 40s underclothes and simplicity of the set made the scene a beautiful moment of quiet in the eye of a storm.
Matthew Bourne’s Cinderella is touring until 10 March 2019. Click here for more details.