Matthew Bourne's Cinderella Relives the Blitz

Matthew Bourne and his history making company, now called New Adventures, tell stories. His one-of-a-kind-productions reprise old movies, old ballets, and old times, but his true currency is the ambient nostalgia that gives those subjects power and a place in our memory. The revived production of Cinderella--the original for Adventures in Motion Pictures was made in 1997--bundles together the Blitz, a familiar fairytale, and English caricature in a heart-warming concoction that pokes fun at English social life but also swells with national pride. The only thing the production lacks is the added warmth of live music. But as it is, Prokofiev’s music, a grim product of the war years, is a good match for the noisy sound effects and a theatrical evocation of wartime. While many companies have fully embraced storybook versions or dived into dystopian Euro Zone retellings, this Cinderella delivers an effective blend of grownup fantasy and reality.

Looming over all of it is Bourne’s special creation, a guardian angel...

Bourne sticks to the classic three act ballet format inherent in the music with a first act laced with near frantic mime and campy scene setting. Act II and III are loaded with dance. Looming over all of it is Bourne’s special innovation for this production, The Angel, an imposing guardian (darker but modeled on the prototype of It’s a Wonderful Life) in a silver lamé suit and bleached hair who protects Cinders from her perfectly awful family and guides her with her Prince Harry (his two pals are Tom and Dick) to a happy ending. That’s no simple business since Harry is a traumatized shell shock victim barely hanging on. By Act III Cinderella, now a Blitz casualty herself recovering in a convalescent home, is in a peril of her own.

The awful family with Harry - photo: Johan Persson
The awful family with Harry - photo: Johan Persson

You can’t heap on enough praise for Lez Brotherston’s recreation of 1940s London, especially the magnificently collapsing Café de Paris dance hall from Act II. Paddington Station, The Embankment and St. Paul’s also have starring roles. Paul Groothuis and Neil Austin with their vivid, often harsh, sound and lighting designs add to what is an overwhelming collage of theatrical elements that feel like a cinema news reel come to life. But along with the large scale technical achievements there are moments of quiet imagination that are equally startling. The first appearance of the The Angel lounging on the sloping mantelpiece (yes, that’s one from the movies too), another when he appears in flight hoisted high from behind a crowd of men, the cleverness of the rolling partitions in the hospital scene, and the romantic comedy of the mannequin dance in Act I all make intimate counterpoint to Brotherston’s monumental sets.

There is an everyman and everywoman quality to this company of dancers

This is an accomplished company who manage characters and dancing with equal measure. The blend steers clear of the kinds of distractions that classical dancers sometimes bring to a theater endeavor. There is an everyman and everywoman quality to this company of dancers that keeps their sure footed performance of Bourne’s moves on course. Ashley Shaw returns in a new lead role with memories still fresh from her Victoria Page portrayal in The Red Shoes. Her dancing is big-hearted and genuine.  Standing apart, as he should, is Liam Mower as The Angel. Bourne dresses him in bigger, loftier moves.  It is as much his show as it is Cinderella’s; he grabs your attention with expansive, arching arms as well as a disconcerting blend of remoteness and humanity.

Ashley Shaw as Cinderella at the Cafe de Paris
Ashley Shaw as Cinderella at the Cafe de Paris

But there is sweetness here too. The central love duets with Harry (danced by Andrew Monaghan) in Act II are a palpable antidote to the war, fleeting moments to cling to amidst the chaos. Both dancers shine here at the romantic heart of the production. And there is even some redemption for the cruel family who finally manage to right themselves. As newlyweds, Harry and Cinderella have found a way out at the end as they board a train to a new life. Left on stage in the final scene are The Angel and a lone woman seated outside the station tea room. The Angel notices her and places his hand on her shoulder. She senses but does not see him. It brings the narrative full circle finally in a swirl of romantic music that is both cinematic and hopeful.

 (The reviewed performance took place Wednesday 6, 2019 at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles. Performances continue into March. )

About the author

Steven Woodruff lives in Los Angeles where he is a professional musician, dancer, educator, and writer. His writing includes original poetry and translations as well articles on film, stage, television, and culture. He reviews dance and music covering national and international touring concert programs as well as local companies for DancePlug, DanceChannelTV, and BachTrack in the UK.