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BWW Review: MATTHEW BOURNE'S EARLY ADVENTURES, Sadler's Wells

If Matthew Bourne had set out to produce a dance show to express the sentiments of Brexit, he couldn't have done it more effectively than this. The fact that Early Adventures is a mixed bag of pieces he made almost 30 years ago is by the by: two-thirds of the evening is a fond and gently satirical examination of British ideas of what it means to be British; the other third is about the British notion of foreign-ness, specifically that alien species just across the Channel. To be sure, the original intention was far from political, but the resonance these pieces have acquired, post-Article 50, is striking.

It's also interesting to see how Bourne's choreographic hallmarks were in place long before the career breakthrough of Swan Lake. Here is the wit, the graphic detailing, the referencing of old films and ballets, the often startling economy of means. A highlight is a five-minute rendering of the movie Brief Encounter, in which not one but two bashful couples meet in the railway refreshment room. To the familiar swell of Rachmaninov, they speed through their affair in duplicate, complete with an illicit trip to the cinema from which they make an embarrassed early exit, edging along the imagined row of knees.

Watch With Mother (1991), set to the nannyish tones of Joyce Grenfell and surging piano music by Percy Grainger, sees dancers in 1950s school uniform going through their paces in the gym. Galumphing boys strike heroic poses, the girls throw themselves gracelessly about, a loner, who perhaps has hit the hormones early, agonises in a self-regarding solo that's both funny and painful to watch. Two other boys in long scarves engage in a playground romp that turns into a parody of the ribbon dance in Frederick Ashton's La fille mal gardée - a bit of an in-joke, but there for all to enjoy.

Town and Country (also from 1991) is more broadly funny. Predating Downton by two decades or more, it sends up upper-class domestic behaviour with a ukulele-playing valet, an obsession with country sports, and a couple being bathed and dressed by their servants while refusing to keep still. As a nod to British anthropomorphism, there is also a tragic sequence involving accidental death of a hedgehog, felled during an overenthusiastic (human) clog dance. Typically, too, there is heartfelt yearning as two Brylcreemed chaps enact a shy and surreptitious courtship to a recording of "Dearest Love", sung by Noël Coward.

Gayness in Bourne's early work is a recurring feature, which in its ease and playfulness made him quite the pioneer in his field. Bourne started out as a choreographer in a world still sniggering behind its hand at the notion of male love. Yet he encouraged his audiences to laugh freely: at the discreet pick-up tactics of the pair in Town & Country; at a merman fluttering his tailfins at a trio of sailors in The Infernal Galop, and even, more daringly, at casual assignations in a French pissoir. In every case Bourne's jokes invite laughter of an open-hearted kind - easy, confident and unthreatened.

The Infernal Galop (1989), which shines a light on uptight English perceptions of the French, is less humorous and registers a change in tone. Yet the superb quality of the cast - six men, three women - pushes through its parody of 1940s grand amour and ooh-la-la with stylish aplomb. A resolutely po-faced cancan is a bizarre way to end the bill. But by this point the audience is so enamoured of Matthew Bourne's Early Adventures, it matters not.

Matthew Bourne's Early Adventures at Sadler's Wells until 8 April, and at Royal & Derngate, Northampton 10-12 April

Photo: Johan Persson


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