REVIEW: The Midnight Bell New Adventures Mathew Bourne

September 16, 2021

The Midnight Bell

New Adventures

Mathew Bourne

Theatre Royal

The New Adventures dance company explores the under-belly of 1930s London life where ordinary people emerge from cheap boarding houses nightly to pour out their passions, hopes and dreams in fog-bound Soho and Fitzrovia in the eponymous pub -The Midnight Bell – a tavern where one particular lonely-hearts club gather to play out their lovelorn affairs of the heart; bitter comedies of longing, frustration, betrayal and redemption. Inspired by English novelist Patrick Hamilton creator of some of the most authentic fiction of his era; stories borne out of years of social interactions with the working man and woman at his favourite location – the London Pub.

The narratives are given the time they need to develop, glances, shoulder hunches, lingering looks, louche attitudes, all mingle with the dance allowing clear and easy to follow storylines to emerge from the seemingly random bustle of the late-night bar. We see desire, needs, and wants, we sense insecurity, arrogance, privilege.  Each dancer seems to pair with another, with eyes meeting across the bar, weighing up chance, movements echoing each other, a tandem of desire appears out of the whirl of movement, sizing up potential, possibility and probability. The Dancers take an active/passive role, some offer the cheek, some offer to kiss it, but this is no binary take on gender expectations, this is a more sophisticated  examination of the power of desire, confidence and who really holds it, and how quickly that can shift. There’s nothing static about this piece apart from the lingering presence of the driving need for personal connection, whether that’s a conversation or something altogether more intimate.

As we move through the first act,  friendships are made and couples couple up, the life of the bar continues its whirl and we are offered vignettes of personality via small break away duets or side sets, short elegant solos dive directly into the internal dialogue of the characters, a dressing table gives us both anxiety and haughty pride, a bed offers up transactional sex, drunken obsession and liberating queer connections all at the same time, suggesting that these boarding house rooms, and the furniture in them, see the same stories played and fucked out on,  and in them night after night. Desire is the clapper of this Midnight Bell, and it’s crepuscular tolling drives all to bed before it. Alone in despair or in an alcohol fuelled drive for satisfaction for erotic desire.   Within the coupling and sensual dances, we explore motive and need in slight intimate ways, the dancer’s bodies giving us lustful moves, the thrill of erotic entanglement, their eyes and expressions conveying the motivations that are getting them there. It’s a fascinating and passionate piece, forensic in its emotional meticulousness matched by the precise flicking limbs and staccato movements. Its lust met, unmet, desire compromised, the movements crescendo and we’re left replete, the bodies offering us a gentle lament of spent passion and occasional regret.

The music from Terry Davis is engaging fun and offers a strong expressive palate for the dancers to push from, there’s enough soundscape to give strong ambience but not enough to intrude, the bassoon, harp and piano in particular striding out and wrapping themselves in demonstrative cadences which are matched by the duel narratives being played out on stage.  The double stories, some overlapping with other duets give a real feel of natural narratives to the piece and it’s very easy to follow what’s going on as the dancers, music and lighting show us where to look, what to see, and what to understand.  As we are led to focus however, the ‘background’ action never ceases to fascinate, from the pouring of a pint, to the playing of the piano,  pulling up a chair to offering a light for a cigarette, there’s not an iota of fat here, it’s all lean, tight, precise action, not a wasted move or extra limb, very very elegant, very very Bourne.

The set and costumes ( so much delightfully designed tweed, done with panache and style by Lez Brotherston) , accessories and affects are superb, offering us a convincing and ever changing landscape of late night 1930’s London, neon and telephony, foggy squares and railings, windows, hallways and bedrooms all slide in and out of the gloom.  Accolades all round for the superb design team here; Paule Constable lighting and Paul Groothuis sound. I reflected on the amount of technical rehearsal that such a frenetic and precise piece must take to get just right.

The audience loved it, although may have been a little awed by its elegant clockwork precision to allow some of the humour to hit home, I laughed a fair bit at some of the wonderful physical jokes, the disappointments, the secret furtiveness, these dancers are superbly engaging and the taught direction allows them small moments to really present us with an insight into the personalities of the protagonists they breathe life into. My companion, no stranger to being in a room full of superb dancers came away impressed and delighted by this entertaining performance.

The second half continues the feverish elegance. We find ourselves in the cinema, gazing with longing as the dancers dance duets of desire on screen, the flickering projection light on the seated dancers a superb period touch. The action moving us into a stage where some, but not all, of the storylines are resolved, and again here Bourne avoids a historical resolution of those people’s romantic endeavours allowing us a more refreshing and altogether more rewarding contemporary take on their lives.   The Queer boys might find a way to be together, the women who fears being left on the shelf finds the power to say ‘no’,  the lover who should stay finally goes. The gigolo gets his reward, respect is retained, again we are asked ‘who has the power here and who has the need’. It’s a nice intersectional take on what could have been a good piece of historical narrative, the personal resolutions presented to us gives a connection with the characters on stage, and echo’s the dancers own agency:  That they are both the dancers and the dance in this life.

Superb and with a lot to recommend it, The Midnight Bell is a wonderful show to enjoy in the Theatre Royal with enough flair to impress the dance aficionados, more than enough to satisfy the Bourne fans in the house,  and enough real passion for your average audience member to enjoy. Its overflowing with glorious narrative and this group of dancers seriously impress, so even if you don’t quite get the dancing you’ll still really get the show.

(Read about the Covid Safe expectations when attending the Theatre Royal here) 

Until Sat 18th September 

Theatre Royal Brighton

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