From its very beginning, as an authentic black & white Pathé film reel about how to behave in an air raid spools across the Sadler’s Wells stage, it was apparent that this would be no ordinary version of ‘Cinderella’.
But then, none of Matthew Bourne’s productions are ordinary. Known for his support for emerging talent and his creative re-telling of classic stories, Bourne loves to push boundaries and challenge convention. Who else would have thought to set ‘Cinderella’ during World War II, in a war-torn London, and have our heroine fall in love with a wounded RAF pilot?
I was riveted. Sombre though the setting and historical backdrop are, this ballet is a joy to watch. It’s impossible to fault any of the dancers, who sparkle elegantly throughout the production: stand-out performances include an Audrey Hepburn-esque Ashley Shaw as Cinderella, a shimmering Liam Mower as the Angel and the scene-stealing Michela Meazza as Cinders’ Wicked Stepmother. Meazza, in particular is a delight. Clad in black and looming ominously over the rest of the cast, snatching any opportunity to quaff a G&T, she put me in mind of an inebriated Cruella de Vil.
As with so many fairy tales, you could level charges of sexism at ‘Cinderella’ and I wouldn’t argue with you, although it does seem curmudgeonly to criticise a story that’s been so well-loved by children for hundreds of years. The servant girl in need of a prince to rescue her, the eminently unlikeable Ugly Sisters and their equally loathsome mother…none of them are exactly 21st century role models. And yet, I can’t help feeling that the women in ‘Cinderella’ have far more fun than any of the men. Prince Charming may be rich, but his character is as bland as a slice of water melon – and the only other male character of note is Buttons who is, well, Buttons.
This version of ‘Cinderella’ stays true, for the most part, to those characters we know so well. What are different, deliciously so, are the wonderful sets, as integral to the production as its talented cast. The glamorous setting of Café de Paris, an underground station doubling as a bomb shelter and a ‘Brief Encounter’-esque train platform combine to transport you back in time to the 1940s as effectively as the fabulous vintage costumes.
True, some of the scenes are over-long (I’m thinking, in particular, of a scene in Café de Paris which, whilst giving all the cast an opportunity to display their superlative technique, does drag on). Indeed, the production as a whole could easily be 20 minutes shorter. But that’s a minor quibble about an event which, for the most part, is utterly absorbing.
Does Cinderella get her man? I’ll leave you to figure that one out. All I know is that, whilst this may be the first Matthew Bourne production I’ve seen, it certainly won’t be the last. His take on ‘Swan Lake’ will visit Sadler’s Wells next December, and I will be first in line to purchase a ticket. You shouldn’t wish your life away, that I know – but I cannot WAIT.