Even without seeing a Matthew Bourne production before, there are certain expectations that come with the name. You know that what you’re about to see, despite being set to familiar classical music, will be not only modern in style but also possibly just quite odd. This, it turns out, is just enough preparation to help you weather the surprise of finding puppet babies and vampire fairies in the middle of Sleeping Beauty.
This new production at Sadler’s Wells (and later touring the country, though sadly coming no closer to Oxford than Milton Keynes) is a dramatic, Gothic affair which updates the traditional story line – and then plays merry hell with it. The dark fairy is now responsible for Aurora’s birth as well as cursing her, and also develops a marvellously creepy son who becomes an evil foil for the castle-gardener-turned-good-vampire-fairy hero (Dominic North) standing in for Prince Charming. This is one of the best twists on the story: we no longer have to believe in a kiss of love at first sight, but instead are presented with a previously established romance, one that lays dormant, waiting to wake the princess.
Thanks to the fluidity of the ballet, this romance is convincing. The inventive and varied choreography of the performance allows for flirtatious rolling around in the hay in one scene while incorporating Edwardian dance in the next – and, in one later scene, the worst demonic disco dancing you’ll ever see. It also allows a surprising amount of humour to enter the story, from the aforementioned puppet baby (who steals the show) to our heroic gardener racing to the castle in cheesy slow-motion balletic running across the stage. The staging is clever, with moving walkways used to good effect, and the costumes are both beautiful and clever in their relative simplicity.
There are, however, a few problems. Much of the second act is sufficiently different from the original story that it’s not quite clear what’s going on at times, particularly in muddled sections of fairy dancing, and the production is greatly let down by the choice to use recorded music. This may have been for touring logistics – given the price of the tickets it can’t have been due to cost – but the lack of immediacy in the music carries across to what we see on stage, lessening the connection to the story and ultimately preventing this fairy-tale gathering the magic required to become an all-time classic.
**** (4 STARS)
PHOTOS / Simon Annand