Matthew Bourne's Early Adventures

Matthew Bourne
New Adventures
York Theatre Royal

Watch with Mother Credit: Johan Persson
Town Credit: Johan Persson
The Infernal Galop Credit: Johan Persson

Over the last three decades, Matthew Bourne has become the UK’s most beloved choreographer, winning the hearts of audiences and critics alike. The recipient of countless honours, including a knighthood, five Oliviers and two Tonys, Bourne’s various productions—most notably his iconic all-male Swan Lake—have brought ballet to the general public by removing its elitist baggage and concentrating on character and storytelling.

In Matthew Bourne’s Early Adventures, audiences are given the chance to watch three of the choreographer’s earliest works, and it is fascinating to note how many of the stylistic and thematic tropes that run throughout his oeuvre were present from the very beginning—not least his exploration of gay desire.

The first piece of the evening, Watch with Mother, has not been staged since its première in 1991, but it remains fresh and vivid. Dressed in grey flannel shorts and pinafore dresses, the nine dancers play primary school pupils in a charming work that encapsulates both the euphoric pleasures of childhood games and the deep emotional attachments that can be forged at this young age.

Inspired by Joyce Grenfell’s nursery school sketches and set to Percy Grainger’s piano arrangements, Watch with Mother is bathed in a warm nostalgic glow. However, Bourne doesn’t shy away from depicting the cruelty of which children are capable. The exclusion of one boy from the rest of the group recalls both Dennis Potter’s superb TV drama Blue Remembered Hills (1979) and William’s Golding’s seminal novel The Lord of the Flies (1954), which Bourne subsequently brought to the stage in 2014.

The second piece, Town and Country, is the most impressive of the three, offering a glorious meditation on Englishness that veers between celebration and parody. Told in an exuberant tableau style, the piece is joyous, cheeky, sexy, irreverent and full of good-natured mockery. Highlights from the first half (Town) include an achingly romantic pas de deux between two male hotel guests and a delicious re-enactment of Brief Encounter (1945), in which two iterations of the Celia Johnson-Trevor Howard pairing are undermined by malicious gay waiters.

In the second half (Country), Bourne swaps city sophisticates for aristocrats and bumpkins, and the results are equally brilliant. Highlights include a boisterous clog dance that culminates in the death of a puppet hedgehog (so funny and yet so sad) and a passionate evocation of Wuthering Heights accompanied by Percy Grainger’s mournful song "Shallow Brown".

The final adventure, The Infernal Galop, sends up British perceptions of the French through a series of witty sketches scored by Chopin, Piaf and Offenbach among others. First performed in 1989, this piece doesn’t quite have the tonal range of Town and Country, but it’s arguably the boldest and sexiest of the three, climaxing in a suitably energetic Can-Can. In one particularly daring scene, a gay tryst begun in a public toilet is repeatedly interrupted by an over-eager street band.

This production excels in every possible way. The nine dancers demonstrate impressive skill and versatility in a range of diverse roles. Lez Brotherston’s eye-catching set and costumes designs help to crystallise the underlying themes of Bourne’s choreography, and the musical selections are perfectly judged. Outstanding.

Reviewer: James Ballands