Paris Fitzpatrick and Bryony Wood. All Photos by Johan Persson

Matthew Bourne: The Midnight Bell, with New Adventures

Matthew Bourne has another winner with his latest creation, The Midnight Bell, and this, in spite of introducing characters that might at first seem to be a rather sorrowful bunch. His skill lies in engaging us with their ordinariness, making us feel empathy and a desire to follow their stories. It’s set in 1930s seedy, alcohol soaked Soho with much (though not all) of the action taking place in the pub of the title. It’s inspired by the works of novelist and playwright, Patrick Hamilton, using some of Hamilton’s characters as well as creating new ones. The novels that most influenced Bourne were Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky, Hangover Square, The Slaves of Solitude and the ‘Gorse’ Trilogy. The theme is one of loneliness, of seeking companionship and even love, often unrequited. As always, Bourne has given each character their own choreographic vocabulary and a depth and richness to their starkly different personas. A waiter, a barmaid, a young prostitute, a cad and so on. Ten roles in total and we watch, in thrall, as their lives begin to unfold, crossover, infatuations develop and in a series of vignettes, present us with a window into half a dozen furtive liaisons.

Glenn Graham and Michela Meazza. Photo Johan Persson

Bourne’s long standing collaborations with his regular team, serve up the goods in a most palatable mix of realism and nostalgia. Lez Brotherston, never fails to design sets and costumes that are anything less than a stroke of genius. Everything from the London skyline, to the smoky pub, the drab bedsit and a dimly lit London park, allows the audience to feel it has stepped back in time and become immersed in this world. With meticulous attention to detail, the way the set switches from park bench to bar to bedroom is done so seamlessly, there is no loss of impetus – we glide through to the next episode.  Terry Davies has composed a score that is evocative and clever, interspersed with songs such as The Man I Love (George and Ira Gershwin), What Is This Thing Called Love (Cole Porter) and Maybe it’s Because I Love You Too Much (Irving Berlin) which are lip-synced by the dancers to great effect. Superbly atmospheric lighting by Paule Constable and sound design by Paul Groothius engage us in the action, the rattle of a distant train or a chorus of birdsong, reaching all the senses.

Photo by Johan Persson

Over two acts, the neediness of each character gets the Bourne treatment – he is an astute observer. The initial attractions evolve through meeting at the pub. Paris Fitzpatrick as Bob, the waiter, is full of hope – he leaps through his opening solo like a graceful gazelle. His desire for Jenny Maple (Bryony Wood), the young prostitute, is doomed from the start. There is an unlikely pairing between Mr Eccles (Reece Causton), a regular customer and Ella (Bryony Harrison), a barmaid who clearly has her heart set on Bob. Michela Meazza as Miss Roach, a lonely spinster, is often cast as the salacious, sexy seductress and yet here she is, buttoned up in her plain blouse and brown skirt. Her encounter with Glenn Graham’s Ernest Ralph Gorse, a rogue and a cad is liberating – especially when she plays him at his own game. Daisy May Kemp is Netta Longdon, an out-of-work actress who captures the interest of George Harvey Bone, a schizophrenic, danced and acted superbly by an almost unrecognisable Richard Winsor. And then there is the clandestine gay coupling of Albert, a West-End Chorus Boy (Liam Mower) and Frank, a new customer in the pub (Andrew Monaghan). These two have some of the best dancing – a fabulous duet involving a park bench. In fact, the props throughout, play an important part in realising the narrative. Fitzpatrick’s phone calls in a partially built phone box are brilliantly devised, as is his improvised piano playing in a local bar. Whilst almost all the couplings seem set to fail – there is enough humour injected into the various plots to turn it into really pleasing entertainment.

The Midnight Bell has all the ingredients for success – a very good looking production, clear narrative and characterisations, imaginative choreography and a cast that brings so much to each role. Alongside these attributes – it’s a piece that is likely to improve with further viewings as familiarity will probably expose even more intriguing detail.

Deborah Weiss