thu 25/07/2024

The Midnight Bell, New Adventures, Sadler's Wells review - dance theatre at its most compelling | reviews, news & interviews

The Midnight Bell, New Adventures, Sadler's Wells review - dance theatre at its most compelling

The Midnight Bell, New Adventures, Sadler's Wells review - dance theatre at its most compelling

Matthew Bourne hits his stride in an engrossing picture of lovelessness in 1930s London

Bedsit blues: Bryony Wood and Paris Fitzpatrick as two of 12 characters looking for love in 'The Midnight Bell'photo: Johan Persson

The British author Patrick Hamilton is best known for two highly successful plays, Rope (1929) and Gaslight (1939), which in turn became highly successful films. But it’s Hamilton’s novels, set among the fog-bound pubs and clubs of 1930s Soho, that have inspired Matthew Bourne’s latest enterprise, The Midnight Bell.

With a cast of 12, this is small-scale compared with hits such as The Red Shoes and Swan Lake, but it’s far from small in ambition. After two hours in the theatre, you are hard pressed to identify a story, and yet those two hours of wordless dance-theatre are as affecting as anything Bourne has produced in his long career. 

The lack of a synopsis in the programme booklet is at once surprising and encouraging. Too much dance-theatre is sunk by the dead weight of printed explication, and really, if a story can’t be told in movement, it’s probably the wrong story. The show takes its title from a pub, The Midnight Bell being one of several down-at-heel locations frequented by the 12 characters, most of them drawn directly from Hamilton’s novels and all of them, in their different ways, lost souls in search of human warmth.

members of New Adventures at the bar of The Midnight BellThis is the flipside of Noel Coward’s smart society. Daisy May Kemp’s actress character is out of work, depressed and regularly drunk, while Richard Winsor’s schizophrenic suffers appalling tinnitus and sleeps on a park bench. Michela Meazza’s lonely spinster is prey to any passing spiv, and Andrew Monaghan’s bobby on the beat turns out to have a dangerous secret. These and other characters (pictured above) are presented to us at the outset with a novelist’s touch: they mill about, they pass in the street or public bar. It’s unclear for some time what relationship, if any, one has to another, and when a web of connections does gradually come into focus, it quickly unravels and re-tangles. All this without a word being spoken, unless you include the occasional breaking out of character into popular song (Pennies from Heaven style, mimed), an idea which has surprising  charm, and can turn funny, or sardonic or tragic.

Bourne allows these characters two principal forms of movement, beyond everyday walking about. One is danced movement that expresses their inner thoughts and feelings, alone or with another character; the other is social dancing. He has long been a master of both, and it’s a particular joy to spot the dance forms he alludes to in the latter mode. While one couple seem to be doing a foxtrot-cum-tango and another pair incorporate comically camp ballet tendus, the spinster defaults to the Charleston which was fashionable several years before. In every case the performers – many of them veterans of Bourne’s 27-year-old company New Adventures – are flawless. I particularly enjoyed the virtuosity of Paris Fitzpatrick as Bob, the pub waiter, dancing alone in his bedsit with a pillow as substitute partner, spinning like a top and diving repeatedly over his unmade bed. Although all the characters are basically unhappy, joy persists in erupting through the cracks.

Bourne’s creative collaborators are key to this success. It’s thanks to the subtleties of Paule Constable’s lighting that we accept the visual conceit of two couples occupying the same bedsit space (and sometimes the same bed) and understand that they are in two separate bedsits. Fans of Bourne’s early work may recall his first experiment in what might be called shared space in the brilliant Play Without Words. It’s the compact scale of The Midnight Bell that has allowed him to build on those ideas.

Set designer Lez Brotherston – whose signature style has been much copied but rarely matched – is now so adept at his own shorthand that a few floating sash windows, a street lamp and the roof of a red telephone box (no actual kiosk, just the top part) can conjure a 1930s street in less time than it takes to flick the ash from a Woodbine. Meanwhile Terry Davies negotiates the musical gulf between his contemporary score (typically building up layers of highly rhythmic tuned percussion) and the period pop songs that pepper the evening, many of them re-recorded to suit his purposes, complete with 78rpm crackle.

three characters in search of love in The Midnight BellWhile it might seem odd, post-Covid, for Bourne to choose such a downbeat scenario, homing in on unhappy lives that largely remain so, the ultimate effect is uplifting. This can only be down to the warmth and sympathy Bourne and his performers bring to their subjects, not to mention inspiration and skill. There is a scene which finds the characters in a fleapit cinema watching a dance-musical featuring unrelenting twosome bliss. In extracting the essence of the gritty world of Hamilton's novels and – ironically – framing it as his own kind of dance-musical, Bourne counters that romantic lie. The Midnight Bell is utterly compelling and the best new work I’ve seen in ages.

As stylish, deftly crafted and ultimately as affecting as anything Bourne has produced in his long career


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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