I’ve always felt uncomfortably ambivalent about the work of Matthew Bourne. Of course, there is no disputing its infectious exuberance or its enormous appeal to a broad public beyond the ballet club. I suppose its eclectic mix of Ashton and MacMillan, camp jokiness, Hollywood movies and Broadway razzmatazz is quirkily unique too – at least sui generis, inasmuch as nobody seems to imitate it with his degree of commercial success. And Bourne’s house designer Lez Brotherston always gets it just right: the shows invariably look great.
Yet there’s also a relentless brashness to them, an absence of psychological nuance and aesthetic restraint. I take a deep breath and try to go with its flow; I end up winded and exhausted. Everything is pitched slam-bang and processed through cliché and parody. The relationship between music and movement is so crude, the choreographic imagination so limited – all too often resorting to the two-to-the-left, two-to-the-right principle of Pan’s People. Yes, it makes for vivid, gutsy theatre. But there’s more to art than that.
My resulting combination of admiration and impatience welled up yet again as I watched this new version of one of Bourne’s biggest hits, The Car Man, expanded to fit the cavern of the Royal Albert Hall. First seen in 2000, it uses Bizet’s Carmen and noirish films such as Ossessione and Rebel Without a Cause as the inspiration for its story of Luca, a drifter who precipitates havoc when he arrives in a small town and proceeds to seduce both Lana, the bored wife of the garagiste Dino, and the wide-eyed ingenuous teenager Angelo.
The spectacle is impressive: the action is brought closer to the audience by a catwalk that runs across the centre of the arena, and Brotherston’s smartly versatile set is complemented by two large screens that project the characters’ facial expressions. I guess that the impact reaches the more distant corners of the Hall (over a run of 14 performances, there are a daunting 70,000 seats to sell).
Bourne has the wit to use dancers who are trained mostly in jazz and contemporary rather than classical ballet – his style calls for the ability to carry narrative and convey character rather than purity of line and elegant detail. ‘I’m never really looking at technique,’ he told his interviewer and mentor Alastair Macaulay. ‘I’m looking for feeling and order and even joy in movement.’
He finds that. His casts never want for energy, and here there are passionately committed performances from Will Bozier as the enigmatic Luca, Paris Fitzpatrick as infatuated Angelo, Zizi Strallen as Lana, and – best of all – Alan Vincent (who created the role of Luca 22 years ago) as fat, sweaty Dino. An extra-large supporting corps has been firmly drilled – Bourne’s shows are nothing if not slickly efficient.
The big jiving and whooping set pieces are dispatched with panache, as is the bi-sexy ripped-T-shirt, pants-down stuff. Together they account for the bulk of the proceedings, but there’s also an incongruous divertissement set in a smokey night club called Le Beat-Route, where the floor show is provided by a troupe of Marcel Marceau mimes, and a scene in a jail from which Angelo makes an implausibly easy escape after being raped by one of the wardens.
Bourne gets away these self-indulgences, but where I draw the line is the expropriation of Bizet’s score. The Car Man uses a pot-pourri mash-up of the marvellous original by Terry Davies: it’s not the most insensitive adaptation I have ever encountered, but I simply don’t want to hear any more cheesy orchestrations of the ‘Habanera’ or Escamillo’s aria as long as I live.
Can we please have a moratorium on this baneful practice and leave the opera to itself? In the past few weeks I’ve also had to endure Mats Ek’s dismally pretentious meta-version at the Palais Garnier (in which the great Stéphane Bullion made his adieu to the stage) and Natalia Osipova in Didy Veldman’s effort at the Queen Elizabeth Hall (my views on which are unprintable). These come in the wake of similar exercises by Roland Petit, John Cranko, Antonio Gades, Alberto Alonso, Carlos Acosta and a host of others who should have known better. Enough!