A new Cinderella set in the London Blitz

Michael Bourne’s Cinderella
Festival Hall, Edinburgh
Until June 9, then Glasgow, June 12-16, Woking, June 19-23

It’s not often that contemporary interpretations of the great classic ballets succeed but Mathew Bourne has managed it a couple of times, notably with his all-male Swan Lake, but he has also turned Prokofiev’s Cinderella into a much more relevant ballet, that reaches to the emotional core of the work.

Even though Prokofiev wrote his music for Cinderella during the dark days of World War II (The Great Patriotic War), it has generally been performed as a light fantasy in the romantic tradition. However, the music has a melancholic aspect which gives this romanticism a darkness, which is only hinted at in most productions. This aspect has fascinated Matthew Bourne and is highlighted in his version of the ballet.

Bourne has noted that he fell in love with the Prokofiev music, watching Sir Frederick Ashton’s version of the ballet, which combined the fairytale with elements of pantomime. In creating his version in the mid-1990s he was drawn to the fact that Prokofiev had started writing it in 1940 at the time of the Blitz when London was under attack. He was also affected by the discovery that the ballroom of the Café de Paris was bombed, with loss of life, during the Blitz.

With London as the setting for the ballet the prince becomes Harry, an RAF pilot, with Cinderella a plain girl living in the oppressive house of her stepmother with vindictive stepsisters and immature stepbrothers.

The work opened with a Pathe newsreel of 1940 warning Londoners of the dangers and as the sounds of bombs and air raid sirens faded the music welled up providing an effective way of locating the work physically and emotionally.

The ballroom scene moves from the palace to the Café de Paris and after the bombing Harry finds a single shoe left by Cinderella and he goes in search of her, finding her at last in a hospital.

The war setting permeates the work. The boyfriends and girlfriends of the children are from the armed services, and some of the night scenes evoke the bombed streets of London with smoke, fire and searchlights. There is also a slight seediness, with the night streets teeming with whores, rent boys and pimps

One of the clever innovations Bourne has brought to the work is replacing the fairy godmother with a male figure, a guardian angel who guides Cinderella. Danced by Liam Mower, his measured elegant steps and movements as well as his being attired in white, create the aura of an ethereal figure who is something like a Fate, sending some to their death while saving others. He also spurns the pumpkin/coach – taking Cinderella to the ball on his motorbike.  

As Cinderella Ashley Shaw is a formidable talent dancing from the slightly frumpy girl as well as the elegant star of the ball. She showed the evolution of character with her acting and dance. She was well partnered by Andrew Monaghan as Harry who also goes through something of a character development from the traumatised pilot of the first act to a more heroic figure by the end.  He conveyed a sense of the unresponsive early on, especially when he dances with Cinderella as a mannequin but his later growth as an individual was reflected in his vigorous seemingly fearless dancing.

The couple finds love, not through the trite notion of love at first sight. Rather they are flawed characters finding common ground as outsiders and soul mates in a confusing and chaotic time.

As Cinderella’s imperious, drunken stepmother Madelaine Brennan gave a frenetic performance, with brusque, sharp movements, while the two daughters danced by Sophie Hurdley and Anjali Mehra were quirkily animated.

The wheelchair-bound Father, with whom Cinderella appears to have a close relationship, allows for some tender moments and an early dance with the older man in his wheelchair is particularly poignant.

The dancing of the sisters, brothers, their partners and all the dancers at the ball provide some elaborate sequences, surpassing the efforts of the various celebrities and others on Dancing with the Stars.

While Bourne tries to make this a bleaker dance work, he can’t keep the playfulness and the joy out of the ballet and he finds humour in even the more tragic moments but it is great to see a contemporary choreographer acknowledging the darker side of the classical repertoires and that it does not always have to have the audience of tutu lovers in mind.

While there was no orchestra the music was one of the better examples of pre-recorded music, capturing the sound, never blurring the volume, a triumph for the sound producers and engineers as well as the sound operator.

This is supplied content and not commissioned or paid for by NBR.