Review of Matthew Bourne’s "Cinderella"

February 13, 2019

A review by Keri Tombazian.

From the moment the Ahmanson Theatre welcomed choreographer Matthew Bourne’s bold all-male production of Swan Lake to America in 1997, it was clear­—Mr. Bourne is an enchanter. It is true that to love his work sometimes requires a putting aside notions of convention. Spend the evening searching for tradition and you might end in frustration, missing Bourne’s vision. Yet, there in the tapestry of his wild imaginings, traditions of ballet are present and accounted for and the germ of each classic story remains. In the case of 2017’s The Red Shoes, it was easy to see. The story was, after all, about a dancer.

Here in 2019, Ahmanson audiences are more challenged to join Bourne in his edgy retelling of the classic Cinderella. This is not your Rodgers and Hammerstein musical and it sure isn’t Disney (although there is a good argument for comparison to the dark themes and visuals of Walt Disney's earliest works.)

Set in 1940 wartime London, the prince (Andrew Monaghan) is a fighter pilot, the castle is a grand speakeasy cafe, and the beloved fairy godmother is an Angel (Liam Mower)—a skin-of-gossamer, hair-of-spun-platinum, wholly-male angel. Go ahead and lament not being treated to a rousing playing of Impossible for just a moment, then, forget all about the godmother and let yourself fall under Mower’s spell. His lines are exquisite. His ministrations over Cinderella (the lovely Ashley Shaw), which are expressed in tandem choreography and amplified by Shaw’s pathos, are filled with a kind of mastery befitting an angel.  Bourne’s dancers are magnificent.  Is there anything more satisfying than fantastic ballet dancers who can act?  Witness evil Sybil The Step-Mother (Madelaine Brennan). Step aside Snow White’s Queen, this evil step mother so delights in her cruelty, the audience tittered a cheer when she got her comeuppance in the opening night performance.  Well played, Ms. Brennan; well played. There isn’t a soft performance in the large ensemble led by Shaw, who is every bit the princess-in-waiting.

The show design is front and center in this telling of Cinderella with the dance almost interposed between bombs falling and dastardly villains scheming. In a lovely echo of Cinderella’s turn with a dress-dummy-stand-in for her prince in Act I, so too does Harry the Pilot imagine his lost love in a dance with her abandoned shoe later in the show. Monaghan is as romantic a figure as any taken from the movies of the 1940s. He understands the behavior of the era—such authenticity. And oh, the movement of his dance.

Yet, while the elements are all there, something is amiss in the piecing together of it all. There are consistent difficulties following Bourne’s story through each of the three acts. The work is often symbolic to the point of obscuring his meaning. While all the elements of mixed media make for a fine spectacle, it is difficult to discern if Bourne has set the pitiless features of war against the cheery fun of swing dance to express the existential duality of life or something more pedestrian. Absent and missed is so much as one perfectly arched foot on pointe; while it might be argued that this is not that kind of ballet, there is no doubt that Mr. Bourne would have no trouble giving the audience a moment of that most rare artform. Sometimes, playing to the audience is a good thing.

Still, for the dance and especially for the design, Matthew Bourne’s Cinderella is a worthy evening of theatre. Duncan McLean’s excellent projections along with Paul Groothuis’ sound create heightened-reality history. Neil Austin’s lighting is to the dancers as the setting sun is to the ocean’s horizon: illuminating that which is already inherently beautiful, employing its own beauty. And then there is the indelible mark of the wizard of set and costume design, Lez Brotherston, who has been making magic with Matthew Bourne for decades. In Cinderella, his costumes beg the question, why did we ever stray from the dresses and suits of the 1940s (do not overlook the hat on Sybil the Step Mother’s head in Act III—wicked and wily.)

Set to Prokofiev, Matthew Bourne’s Cinderella runs through March 10th, 2019. 

Get your tickets HERE.

Johan Persson