Romeo and Juliet

Verona is anything but fair in this dark and challenging reimagining of the tale of two young lovers.

The star-crossed pair are there but little else remains in a version of Romeo and Juliet which is very much Matthew Bourne’s and not at all Shakespeare’s.

At a compact 90 minutes (plus slightly jarring interval) much of the Bard’s story has been jettisoned with the warring families, love rival Paris, the Prince, Mantua, and the Apothecary all excised from the action.

Instead we find ourselves confined in some form of mental health institution for the young, where Juliet is already ensconced and Romeo is soon cast away by his uncaring parents.

Romeo and Juliet
Juliet (Cordelia Braithwaite) and Tybalt (Dan Wright)

Their romance blossoms in this unlikely setting – aided by their Cuckoo’s Nest inspired fellow inmates – through a series of wonderful duets from principals Cordelia Braithwaite and Paris Fitzpatrick.

Bourne has always been skilled at seductive shapes and selecting performers who act as much as dance. There are none of the rictus smiles and fixed stares of classic ballet here: these two lovers have eyes (and lips) only for each other. They sensuously combine, with one delicious passage seeing them inverted on the floor but mouths locked and rolling across the stage. When they finally break and stand panting, gazing longingly at each other, it feels intensely real.

The corps have plenty of chance to get physical too, with the ball scene starting as a formal party but descending into a frenzied orgy when the guards aren’t looking; there are skirts hitched up and no lack of writhing. Mercutio (Danny Collins) has a same-gender hook up that becomes the spark for his dispute with Tybalt (Dan Wright), triggering the inevitable descent from simmering unease to bloody tragedy.

As that darkness descended I swear there was a hiss and movement straight from Bourne’s muscular Swan Lake as the inmates formed a brutal mob, with the rapidly following conclusion just as bloody and shocking as that now iconic production’s.

The plot is distinct and different from the traditional play, but it has a power of its own. There is a question of how far you can travel from the original and honestly claim the name – Bourne’s reworking makes West Side Story look like a by-the-book RSC production – but in its own right this is an immensely creative and affecting tale.

Romeo and Juliet

Lez Brotherston’s set is centred on a curved tiled wall, with twin prison grills on either side for boys and girls, and a raised walkway around the top that allows for a balcony scene of sorts. Beds wheel in and out and there is a brief bit of Baz Luhrmann sparkle when a glitter ball descends, but the emphasis is on stark simplicity.

Prokofiev’s score is rejigged with an emphasis on and reprises of Dance of the Knights, through a new orchestration by Terry Davies reduced down to 15 parts and performed live under Dan Jackson’s direction.

Each of the runs of Romeo and Juliet includes temporary corps members drawn from local dancers aged 16 to 19 (Joe Barbrook, Chandi Brading, Freya Brown, Isis Clunie, Amonik Melaco, Jack Richardson), and perhaps the greatest compliment is that you could only identify them on the curtain call – for the rest of the show they slotted seamlessly into the cast.

Romeo and Juliet is at Norwich Theatre Royal until Saturday, September 7. Cinema screenings take place across the country from October 22.

The Red Shoes

Based loosely on the Powell and Pressburger classic film, this reimagining of the reimagined Hans Christian Andersen fairytale is a typically stylish Matthew Bourne affair.

A swirling and becurtained proscenium arch dominates the show, a metaphorical and physical divide between life and art and itself a key player in the two hours of dance.

The establishing scenes are technically adept, with great corp work and some playful touches – including a Gautier-alike version of Monte Carlo, complete with beach balls and longing for cutesy sailor hats. The early scenes lack a little of the passion and flamboyance you expect from Bourne, but we’re not denied for long, and in retrospect it is a valuable contrast.

The ballet within the ballet is a shocking, enrapturing Gallic monochrome nightmare, with Ashley Shaw’s Victoria Page becoming more and more bedraggled and bedevelled. As the evil eponymous shoes drive her on, she becomes physically and emotionally overwrought – and we join with her as the footwear fatally pushes her on, barely drawing breath as the seasons pass on.

This central piece is really the climax, although the reprise and other later scenes have their own surprising charms.

There are several strong supporting performances, noticeably Sam Archer (ballet chief Lermontov), Dominic North (composer and lover Craster), and Michela Meazza (rival leading lady Irina). The uncredited Egyptian sand dancers (yes, really) also make a unexpected and successful contribution.

Lez Brotherston’s sets and costumes triumphantly contrast the lush physical opulence of the ballet house with harsh, geometric, and dreamlike projections during the Red Shoes proper and are laden with thoughtful details; the gradual shredding of Page’s dress during the main sequence is just one.

Bourne’s changes to the story do remove a little of the emotional resonance of the film’s story: Page and Craster’s courtship is heavily curtailed, and Lermontov discarding Irina for breaking an ankle instead of announcing an engagement shifts his character too.

What he retains is the dazzling visuals that made the film – and Great Yarmouth-born cinematographer Jack Cardiff – famous, with an inventive and involving production. This run opened with the 100th performance of The Red Shoes; those feet are going to keep on dancing for a long time yet.

Play Without Words

From the outset of Matthew Bourne’s Play Without Words, the atmosphere drips off the stage.

A kaleidoscopic jazz lust dream, this dance-ballet-play charts the story of a young couple in an increasingly swinging sixties.

With each character played by multiple dancers, the action literally swirls around the stage and an impressive rotating central staircase – the centrepiece of Lez Brotherston’s iconic set of London landmarks.

The dance is intimate, sexual, and intriguing, as improvised and as regulated as the best jazz. The performers duplicate, reinforce and deviate as sexual tensions between the engaged central couple, their servants, and a confident, over-amorous old friend spills out across both Soho and the more respectable corners of the capital.

Terry Davies’s score, performed live by a talented quintet led by Michael Haslam, and its ever present rumbling of a sneering trumpet is evocative and complex.

This is less bombastic, less hyper-real than most of choreographer Matthew Bourne’s oeuvre; more delicate, more sad, and more human.

Anticipated love is felt keenly, a gasp mid-tryst is heard throughout the auditorium, betrayal and distrust flashed in pulsing lights, beating drums and theatrical fights.

This is a perfect sultry and sophisticated midsummer night’s dream.

Nutcracker!

If there’s one phrase that describes Matthew Bourne’s imaginative retelling of the Nutcracker, it’s “oral feast”.

And, yes, I do mean oral, not aural. While Bourne makes great use of Tchaikovsky’s famous score — embellished with hints of jive, flamenco and more besides — the cast spend an inordinate amount of time licking things. Quite often each other. For those familiar with Bourne it will be no surprise. He specialises in bold and bawdy ballet and this is no exception, and good to gobble all up.

Top of the table is Hannah Vassallo as Claro, the orphan girl who is taken on a fantastical journey. Beautifully expressionate, she held her own throughout and took the audience’s affection with her as she tried to capture the heart of the Nutcracker (Chris Trenfield).

Sophia Hurdley and Luke Murphy were charmingly comic Cupids, and Tom Jackson Greaves is deliciously rakish as Knickerbocker Glory.

Anthony Ward’s set and costumes make a fabulous impact. From the monochrome of the orphanage to the saccharine explosions of Sweetieland, they are at one with the action.

You can’t help but leave delighted, emotionally exercised, and humming those famous tunes.