thu 25/07/2024

Matthew Bourne's The Car Man, Sadler's Wells | reviews, news & interviews

Matthew Bourne's The Car Man, Sadler's Wells

Matthew Bourne's The Car Man, Sadler's Wells

New Adventures company on sizzling form in revival of slick, exciting show

Caught in the act: 'The Car Man' hinges on the liaison between a garage owner's wife and a charismatic drifter © Johan Persson

The original idea for the subtitle of this show, first made in 2000 and last seen at Sadler's Wells in 2007, was apparently "An Auto-Erotic Thriller". Yes, groan. But "erotic thriller" is a much straighter description of The Car Man than its actual, rather coy, subtitle, "Bizet's Carmen Reimagined". This is a nail-biting ride, and certainly not suitable for kids.

The plot is based loosely on The Postman Always Rings Twice - wife and lover murder husband somewhat inefficiently, there is a wrongful conviction but eventually (twisted) poetic justice. Bourne adds a tragic misfit and a bisexual love triangle into the mix, with the result that an innocent, gawky teenage boy and his waitress wannabe-sweetheart are roundly screwed over, despite being the closest thing to friends the oversexed and desperate adulterers have.

Domoic North as Angelo and Katy Lowenhoff as Rita in Matthew Bourne's The Car ManAll four main parts are played by strong actor-dancers: Chris Trenfield ripped and magnetic as the dangerous stranger, Zizi Strallen pouting and petulant as the seductive wife, Kate Lyons shy and sweet as the waitress. But these are more or less one-note characters: only Dominic North as Angelo (pictured right, with Katy Lowenhoff), the teenage boy and third point in the love triangle, gets to display a real range of emotions, from ecstatic love to brutalised, vengeful rage. He does it beautifully, using his dark eyes and slender, fluid dance style to compelling effect, and it's his tragic trajectory (I won't give it away) that really gives the story power.

The setting is the familiar one of an American immigrant community (named, with sledgehammer irony, Harmony) baking in a fan oven of too much machismo and too little to do. We know from the first, steamy, moments that it's only a matter of time before this hot potato explodes messily, and the all-bumping, all-grinding corps de ballet hammer home the reason why: sex.

Bourne is great at choreographing innovative, often humorous, but often genuinely charged dirty dancing, but my main beef with this production is how much of it there is. The Car Man shares plot and setting elements with West Side Story and A Streetcar Named Desire, but unlike those two it doesn't have a particularly rich or nuanced vision of the emotional world underpinning the conflict that periodically erupts into violence. Erotic passion seems to be the only kind going in downtown Harmony, and the motives of honour or familial love that play a part in Bizet's Carmen are more or less nowhere to be seen.

Zizi Strallen as the adulterous Lana in Matthew Bourne's The Car ManComposer Terry Davies has built on Rodion Schedrin's Carmen Suite to make a slick, danceable score, here played live by the New Adventures orchestra, though with such heavy amplification it might as well have been recorded. Lez Brotherston's sets and costumes are a treat, with a two-level structure morphing seamlessly between garage, lounge bar and jailhouse, and plenty of period Americana touches: battered diner serving "wet fries", cigar-chomping businessman in short-sleeved shirt, ladies in lush '50s dresses, cropped shirts and bullet bras (pictured left, Zizi Strallen).

The American setting functions just like Bizet's gypsy- and toreador-filled Spain, as a familiar yet exotic place where we feel crimes of passion are more likely to be commonplace. Like Carmen too, Bourne's Car Man explores a seething cauldron of sex, subjugation and violence with little attempt at subtlety. But it's not quite a straightfoward plot either, twisty enough to be exciting and morally ambiguous enough to disrupt simple conclusions. For those who don't mind seeing a little sex and violence, this dance show is a big confident crowd-pleaser.

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