There are two Sleeping Beautys in town this season (the other is Hex at the National Theatre) but neither is what you’d call festive. Matthew Bourne, in his returning production at Sadler’s Wells, takes Tchaikovsky’s classic storybook ballet and goths it up. Cue thunderstorms, ear-splitting howls, scary fairies and cursed weddings. Oh, and vampires too.
The original ballet is long on melody, short on plot. Bourne, dance’s most committed storyteller, tries to ensure that the tale of an evil spell relieved by true love’s kiss doesn’t lose momentum. It isn’t seamless, but is always entertaining and delivered with panache.
We open in 1890 (so the heroine’s 100-year snooze lands us in the present, more or less). A royal couple do a deal with the dark side and score a baby princess (a hyperactive puppet, clambering up the swagged curtains). Aurora is protected by some feral fairies, seemingly escaped from Helena Bonham Carter’s wardrobe: tumbled curls, smudged mascara and raggle-taggle hems. Scarier by far though is Carabosse, the evil spirit who gifted the baby but now feels neglected – Ben Brown makes her taunting and imperious.
A curse is laid. Aurora comes of age during an idyllic Edwardian summer. Katrina Lyndon led the cast I saw, full of life and surging with tomboy energy: she tugs off boots and stockings at the first opportunity, and moves in a vigorous romp and tumble. In love with the gamekeeper Leo (Stephen Murray), she passes her birthday waltzing among the topiary until Carabosse’s son Caradoc (Brown again) appears, bent on badness, wielding cheekbones like offensive weapons.
Caradoc’s duet with Aurora, slippery with tango intensity, suggests an entry into a perilous, adult world. He lets drop an enchanted, thorny rose which leads to fits, falls and apparent death. Lilac, the fairy king (performed with vigilante charisma by Dominic North) transmutes Aurora’s fate to a century’s slumber, and gives lovelorn Leo immortality with a vampire’s ecstatic bite.
When the production premiered in 2012, True Blood was the vampire reference of choice –this revival sweeps in under the cape of the rebooted Interview with a Vampire series. It’s surely no spoiler to say that Leo, waiting out the century in his bobble hat, delivers the adoring kiss that wakens his beloved – but he and Lilac must fight to achieve a happy ever after at a vampiric masked ball.
Bourne’s regular creative team offer lavish delights, and Paule Constable’s lighting gives the drama maximum intensity, dunking the stage in indigo for the fairy’s spell and crimson for the vampires’ ball. The cast give it full-bodied commitment and pert detail: especially eye-catching are Shoko Ito’s harried nanny and Cameron Flynn’s chinless wonder of a suitor. But the way Bourne forces pieces of plot together doesn’t feel gorgeously inevitable, and this show can’t offer the emotional wallop of his best work, despite the sumptuous and ingenious ride.
Sadler’s Wells, to January 15; buy tickets here