World-renowned choreographer Sir Matthew Bourne returns to Birmingham with a barnstorming adaptation of Tchaikovsky’s ballet masterpiece Sleeping Beauty. 

The lushly romantic show, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary, is currently playing at The Birmingham Hippodrome until Saturday 11 February.

Dance company New Adventures has been delighting audiences for a decade with this award-winning production of Sleeping Beauty which first premiered at Sadler’s Wells and became the fastest-selling show in the history of the legendary venue.

The dancing in the show is spellbindingJohan Persson
The fiery and passionate dancing in the show is spellbinding

Those expecting a safe and conventional version of the ballet are in for a real surprise as Bourne – who famously got men to dance the traditionally female roles of the swans in a revolutionary adaptation of Swan Lake in 1995 – injects a dark Gothic steampunk hue to the show which will excite ballet connoisseurs and engage newcomers who have never experienced the magical delights offered by this classical dance form.

The revolutionary choreographer is not afraid to have his twisted and surreal version of Sleeping Beauty inhabited by witches, sexy vampires, nightmarish flying fairies and demons, a mischievous but cute baby, and modern day urban explorers of derelict buildings.

Bourne crafts a landscape shrouded in dark shadows and silhouettes, with intertitles narrating the tale emblazoned across the stage curtains – a technique that bring to mind the monochromatic world of Silent Film, especially F. W. Murnau’s influential Nosferatu – while the stark blood red colours seem to be inspired by the world of Hammer Horror and Mario Bava movies.

Matthew Bourne injects a full blooded Gothic atmosphere into the well-known fairy taleJohan Persson
Matthew Bourne injects a full blooded Gothic atmosphere into the well-known fairy tale

The timeless fairy story – which celebrates the power of love and forgiveness to overcome evil – has been spun with a modern slant which fuses vampires and fairies and makes the audience think long and hard about the nature of goodness and evil, and whether these forces are ever as clear cut as described in children’s bedtime stories.

Bourne’s takes the classic tale of Princess Aurora, who is cursed by the evil witch Carabosse to sleep for a hundred when she prickles her finger on her sixteenth birthday, and gives the story a new pulse for a new generation by adding bold and dramatic metaphysical symbolism that takes the story into the realm of dreams and beyond where time itself loses all meaning.

The centuries old cautionary tale is made relevant and immediate for the modern era without sacrificing the magical and bewitching atmosphere which is crucial to the story.

The red and blacks colours of the costumes highlight forbidden desiresJohan Persson
The stark red and black colours of the costumes highlight forbidden desires

The story uses comedy which seems to be aimed at the younger audience – the scenes with Princess Aurora as a baby (a really inventive puppet creation that has to be seen to be believed) are full of nonstop slapstick – but the older members of the audience will also respond to the interactions of the nurse and family members as they try to curb the little princess’s babyish enthusiasm to explore everything and anything. The little ball of energy is seen climbing up curtains, exploring under her bed, crawling between the legs of the adults, and chasing imaginary butterflies.

The lightweight comedy is contrasted with jet black psychology as Princess Aurora grows up and reaches puberty and begins to discover a tantalising, yet dangerous, world beyond the confines of her nursery.

In the gardens of the sprawling royal estate she develops a friendship with Leo the gamekeeper. However, despite the allusions to D. H. Lawrence’s controversial Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the budding romance between Leo (Andrew Monaghan) and Princess Aurora (Ashley Shaw) is sweet and pure rather than torrid and salacious.

Leo and Princess Aurora share a pure and chaste romanceJohan Persson
Royal gamekeeper Leo and Princess Aurora share a pure and chaste romance

Monaghan is gentle, caring and warm and he shows his love for the princess with sweet and innocent gestures that are fuelled by the world of teenagers and first love.

Monaghan shares a genuine trust with Shaw and their youthful and zestful dancing is so energetic that there were moments – especially their dance on and around a garden bench where Shaw jumped off fearlessly and aimed herself at the arms of the awaiting Monaghan – where absolute connection and trust between the performers is required to ensure a pas de deux did not end in a dangerous misstep.

Bourne keeps the choreography between Monaghan and Shaw as chaste and angelic as possible.

Villain Caradoc uses his charm in an attempt to lure the innocent Princess Aurora into a trapJohan Persson
Villain Caradoc uses his charm in an attempt to lure the innocent Princess Aurora into a trap

The pulsating forbidden desires are instead channelled through the designs and machinations of the ballet’s nefarious villain Caradoc who is looking to avenge what he believes to be an unforgivable grievance done by the royal family against his mother Carabosse.

Ben Brown plays the role of bad boy Caradoc in a deliciously wicked and charismatic manner which displays a regal and charming exterior while secretly nursing a dark and tortured interior as he watches Princess Aurora with a predatory light glinting in his furtive eyes.

Brown shares a powerful physical and psychological chemistry with Shaw who brings a joyful innocence to her presentation of Princess Aurora. Her spotless white dress signifies the virginal state of her untainted body and mind while Brown’s black and white attire, with a coat that occasionally swirls back to reveal an interior lining streaked with a blood red colour, that metaphorically reveals his throbbing carnality.

The dark timbre of the illicit energy adds an erotic frisson to the sequences that feature interactions with Caradoc and Princess Aurora. Both dancers use their eyes and facial expressions in a dramatic way to convey the emotional state of their minds.

Caradoc is a seductive and dangerous charmer who is woven from the same fabric as Bram Stoker’s lascivious Count Dracula and Mozart’s serial seducer Don Giovanni.

Although Bourne’s adaptation of Sleeping Beauty is now 10 years old it seems to prophetically tap into contemporary social anxieties such as the grooming of innocent girls at the hands of men who harbour insidious appetites.

The loss of innocence carries a heavy price for Princess Aurora Johan Persson
The loss of innocence carries a heavy price for Princess Aurora

Shaw’s performance as Princess Aurora is a special highlight in the show and she executes every movement with a devoted and emotional connection to the role. The moment when she caresses and plays with the poisoned purple-black rose offered to her by the scheming Caradoc is lyrically exquisite.

She strokes the stem and rubs the petals of the flower between her fingers in a spiritual and blissful manner. When her finger is pricked by a sharp thorn her eyes open wide in pain and horror. First her hand, then her wrist and forearm, then her upper arm and shoulders react as the poison flows through her and begins to numb her limbs and senses.

Her dancing reflects the poison as it courses through her veins and works its way down to her weakening legs. Shaw is incredible in the way she twists and turns, her body convulsing and jerking and slowing down as she succumbs to the curse of sleep laid upon her.

The sumptuous set designs emphasise the dreamy world of Princess AuroraJohan Persson
The sumptuous set designs emphasise the dreamy world of Princess Aurora

Lez Brotherston’s set designs, including costumes, merge magically into Bourne’s Gothic vision. As soon as the curtain rises the audience is instantly transported into the world of Tchaikovsky’s dreamy ballet.

The illusion of depth, movement, and sheer scope are conjured up with what can only be described as witchcraft that enters the eyes and fires up the imagination.

Misty and cobwebbed forests, with ancient trees reaching towards a low hanging moon that drips with romantic atmosphere, and cavernous drawing rooms that are held up by high pillars and cloaked in thick shadows are contrasted with the wide open spaces of the palace gardens which are drenched in glorious summer light.

The choreography blends itself seamlessly into the Gothic designs of the showJohan Persson
The choreography blends itself seamlessly into the Gothic designs of the show

The gorgeous lighting design by Paule Constable evokes the magical landscapes that graced the illustrated Ladybird Fairy Tales books.

From the prologue and all the way to the thunder-and-lightening climax the lighting brings wonder and magic to the world of this Gothic flavoured ballet.

The inspirational reworking of Tchaikovsky's ballet brings the show to a modern audienceJohan Persson
The inspirational reworking of Tchaikovsky’s ballet brings the show to a modern audience

The best recommendation for any show is when it inspires the audience in some shape or form. In the case of Sleeping Beauty a member of the audience was heard saying that they were interested in booking a place for ballet lessons as the show ended and people made their way out of the theatre.

A perfect case of art inspiring art.

Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty is an inspirational five-star start to the theatrical year.

VERDICT: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty is running at The Birmingham Hippodrome until Saturday 11 February 2023

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