Dance Review: Matthew Bourne's The Car Man at Bristol Hippodrome
This review was first written for The Public Reviews
We expect a lot from Matthew Bourne these days. We already know he can take a familiar, much loved classic – from Sleeping Beauty to Swan Lake – and wittily invert it, challenging the genre and rediscovering relevance for a contemporary audience. The physicality of his New Adventures dance company is legendary, his production values second to none. The Car Man, his boundary-pushing millennium year reinvention of Bizet’s classic opera Carmen, has already had one revival in 2007, to general critical acclaim.
According to the programme notes, not only is it a favourite of Bourne’s but his dancers were also demanding a second revival, relishing the opportunity to try out its demanding acting and dancing roles. So can he continue to deliver to the same standard with this 2015 UK tour of The Car Man, which culminates with four weeks in Sadler’s Wells this summer?
The audience is still filing into the auditorium of the Bristol Hippodrome, yet this next generation of dancers is already in evidence, strolling about Lez Brotherston’s evocative set – a sixties diner and garage in the fictional mid-west American town of Harmony – a name which becomes increasingly ironic as the story progresses. Then the music begins and the atmosphere is immediately charged, not one single move wasted or superfluous, as the mechanics strut and leap through their daily grind, before mingling with the crowd at the diner; young men and women flirting and seducing, glancing together then peeling apart. It’s already sexy, steamy stuff – with a trademark touch of Bourne wit in the showers at the end of the shift – apart from poor Angelo, the butt of everyone’s jokes.
Into this scene wanders Luca, a drifter in the Steinbeck mould, poised to tear this small town world apart. He squares up to the men and smoulders for the women, taking up the vacancy advertised by Dino, owner of the diner and garage. He quickly catches the eye of Dino’s lissom young wife Lana and defends Angelo against the bullies, teaching him how to fight.
This is far from a slavish, modern retelling of Bizet’s often restaged story, but there are parallels, not only in the music which pays tribute to the original. Carmen’s passionate and tempestuous nature finds a home in both Luca and Lana, while Lana’s younger sister Rita, in her constant love and empathy for Angelo, echoes the steadfastness of Micaëla, the girl from Don José’s village.
The breathtaking pace never lets up, as the plot of The Car Man twists and turns, riven to the core with lust and betrayal. Act Two moves seamlessly from a sleazy city club “le beat-route” to the grim surroundings of the county jailhouse – with fluid changes in lighting and scenery – before coming back full circle to a rather more run-down Dino’s Diner.
The performance of the ensemble is captivating throughout and the principals at press night are outstanding – Alan Vincent having first danced the role of Luca in 2000 now appearing as the irascible, cigar-smoking Dino. Dominic North takes Angelo through an expressive transformation in his rebellion against a fate which has served him such injustice and Kathy Lowenhoff’s Rita is touchingly kind and loyal to the last. Zizi Strallen, fresh from her role as Demeter in Cats, is lithe and seductive as the temptress Lana, while Chris Trenfield captures all the grit and enigma of Luca. He’s so smoulderingly irresistible in Act One, it’s as if he has his own gravitational pull and his unravelling in Act Two is equally affecting, as events come back to haunt him.
On press night, the audience which has been rapt and hushed throughout erupts into an ovation at the end of the evening. Whether a long-standing aficionado or new to his work, you cannot fail to be dazzled by this sizzlingly white hot production. The Car Man is simply sublime; Matthew Bourne and New Adventures continue to deliver at the very highest level.
Reviewed on Saturday 23rd May 2015 as part of a UK tour | Photo: Chris Mann