It is a big risk to radically update a famous fairytale but Matthew Bourne’s Cinderella revived in a scintillating new production at Sadler Wells, comes up trumps.
The action has now been relocated to London during the Blitz. Cinderella is the forgotten child of a family of six with two stepsisters and three stepbrothers. Rather than a ball, the family is heading out to the Café de Paris and taint Cinderella with party invitations. When magic forces appear, they come not in the shape of a fairy godmother but of a white satin-suited male Angel, who whisks the lonely and neglected child off to the party and brings her, her Prince, in the shape of a wounded RAF pilot. He then guides her through the Blitz to bring about a truly fairytale ending.
Bourne creates a dark, whirling world of wonderfully expressive choreography, full of longing and emotion. There’s an unforgettable scene when Cinderella dances with a tailor’s dummy who is suddenly transformed into her dashing pilot but who dances with the clumsiness of a dummy as if her imagination can only carry her so far. The choreographer’s masterstroke, however, is to make clever use of the propulsive thrust of Prokofiev’s haunting, melancholic score, which is about the passage of time. Cinders is always racing against the clock, snatching her moment of happiness as the minute hands tick towards midnight. This frenzied sense of seizing life while you can is perfectly suited to a setting during the London Blitz, where the besieged inhabitants of the city lived in the knowledge that every moment might be their last.
There are affectionate tributes to great British choreographers Kenneth MacMillan and Frederick Ashton and strong references to Powell and Pressburger films such as A Matter of Life and Death. But the way the ballet comes together, full of witty moments is entirely Bourne’s creation, including a small subplot about the gay brother who also finds love, and a clever reimagining of the Prince’s journey around the world that sets the pilot amongst prostitutes, thieves and upper-class riff-raff.
The designer Lez Brotherston has created stunning, stylised sets that, with the help of a newsreel, archive footage, not only capture a city in peril, with jagged, bombed-out buildings framing the action, but also recreate the glittering Café de Paris, famously hit by a bomb in 1941, where a blast-dazed Cinderella dreams of being at the ball and where couples waltz with desperate passion. Furthermore Brotherston’s costume designs, which are a mix of the everyday wear of ordinary Londoners and servicemen and women, as well as the more flamboyant designs of 1940s movie stars, beautifully capture the realism of our “darkest hour” with the escapism and glamour of Hollywood.
Ashley Shaw, in the titular role, is a swooning, dramatic Cinderella, each moment of sadness carefully registered, each dawning of hope fully communicated. As the Angel, Liam Mower is both sharp and slightly sinister Andrew Monaghan is a realistic pilot, anguishes but loving, while Michela Meazza gives a standout performance as the wicked, vamp-like stepmother, whose glamorous exterior conceals a murderous heart. All the dancing, I should add, is of the highest order.
Running at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre until 27 January 2018Last modified: April 6, 2021