England on Fire

Sadler's Wells

Listing details and ticket info...

BalletBoyz England on Fire Credit: Thomas Bradshaw
BalletBoyz England on Fire Credit: Thomas Bradshaw
BalletBoyz England on Fire Credit: Thomas Bradshaw
BalletBoyz England on Fire Credit: Thomas Bradshaw
BalletBoyz England on Fire Credit: Thomas Bradshaw
BalletBoyz England on Fire Credit: Thomas Bradshaw

The BalletBoyz AD duo, Michael Nunn and William Trevitt, may have singed their fingers with this overly ambitious project, based on the eponymous book by Mat Osman and Stephen Ellcock. Steering away from their raison d’être, this new venture has a mixed cast of thirteen dancers, ten musicians, a post-punk rock band, Gag Salon, eight choreographers and eight modern composers.

How to hold the reins of this pack of creatives… Ten numbers, each with significant titles and voiceover of relevant text, have a narrative about England past and present. Does England on Fire mean on fire with imagination or on the bonfire of vanities? Both from the look of it...

The stage is mostly dark (lighting designer Andrew Ellis) with light strafing the side stalls with ancient symbolic images. Is this William Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ or Jez Butterworth’s? Or both? Is this about English nationalism with its St George flag? Projections of Farage, Thatcher, Sunak, Suella, royalty, coronation, Johnson, Hancock, Prescott, Scargill, historical demos and more flash by quickly. A broken England as incoherent and confused as this production…

There are wandering figures in black with animal heads (Abigail Caywood mask maker), priests in red tunics, beribboned mummers (costumes Katherine Watt), images of standing stones, pagan ritual, circle dancing, solo, duos, trios, and a band of travellers. Druids wandering the ley lines… Oh, and a girl tossed by the sea to the sound of seagulls and waves lapping?

The flow of choreographic numbers from a diverse cohort—Holly Blakey, Edd Arnold, Thick & Tight, Russell Maliphant, Vidya Patel, Lucy Bennett, Ola Ince and Shelley Maxwell—interspersed with text, is a tangled muddle. I try to identify them from their signature styles but it’s not easy. Too many cooks turn it into a broth?

The programme notes list each piece under titles: Out of Darkness, Ritual, Enclosure, Settlement, Water, Wildness, The Way, Rebellion, Visions, Arcadia, and reading it afterwards I see it’s an imaginary history of England, a pathway to hope and a memento mori. I wonder if this is too heavy a load for an eighty-minute, no interval show.

The eclectic soundscape ranges from Charlotte Harding, Cassie Kinoshi, Mukul, Keaton Henson, Joe Zeitlin and Gwilym Gold. Singer Kami Thompson, performing composer Henson’s "The Ballad of Albion", reminds me of the Waterson family’s folk singing tradition. It’s a long delightful interlude along "The Way".

The nine-strong band under the baton of Aaron Holloway-Nahum is great, as is the post-punk band Gag Salon, which has its own stage at the side. Suddenly we are at a gig, and the dancers do a bit of hedonistic head banging. Actually, I’d say it’s more interesting as a musical concert than a patchwork dance medley.

The dancers, some I recognize, are Harry Alexander, Edd Arnoid, Benji Knapper, Oxana Panchenko, Luigi Nardone, and many I don't, Tania Dimbelolo, Seiran Griffiths, Rosanna Lindsey, Sharol Mackenzie, Folu Odimayo, Sophie Ormiston, Artemis Stamouli, Meghan Stevens, Kai Tomioko, Holly Vallis. Subservient to the epic ambitions of the production, some feel underused in a collaged evening that runs away with itself.

Michael Nunn’s paintings of a menhir and a feral dog decorate the programme beautifully, and the notes are extremely useful, especially the quote from Mat Osman on Arcadia: “England is a hothouse flower and all the glass is cracked.” A bold attempt to put it into dance form, but perhaps this time the BalletBoyz' reach has extended their grasp.

Artistic directors Nunn and Trevitt say they were “inspired by the mind-blowing book England on Fire: A Visual Journey through Albion's Psychic Landscape by Stephen Ellcock and Mat Osman, this is a search for meaning amid the challenges of life in the modern and ancient worlds”.

Motley, labyrinthine, gothic (video projections of an eye glaring through ancient carved stones), England on Fire feels a work in progress—aren’t we all? Maybe that’s the point, lost souls scrambling. Muddy, murky (”welcome to the dark”), they’ve missed out the magic. My companion confesses she had no idea what was going on for much of the time.

Reviewer: Vera Liber

*Some links, including Amazon, Stageplays.com, Bookshop.org, ATG Tickets, LOVEtheatre, BTG Tickets, Ticketmaster, LW Theatres and QuayTickets, are affiliate links for which BTG may earn a small fee at no extra cost to the purchaser.

Are you sure?