When Sadler's Wells lands its biggest advance ticket sales on any production in its history, it can only mean one thing: that Matthew Bourne is back in town.
His Cinderella isn't new exactly. The choreographer first tackled Prokofiev's lush, dark score in 1997, relocating the story to London in the Blitz, thus pegging an overworked trope of fairytale to a time and place where love, famously, could be lost or found in the course of a night. It was a deft move, too, to make the action contemporaneous with the music, penned soon after the Café de Paris – the location of the ball in Bourne's production – received a direct hit in a night-time bombing raid with huge loss of life.
A reworking of that reworking – spectacularly redesigned by Bourne's long-term collaborator Lez Brotherston, and with surround-sound recording (Paul Groothuis) replicating the experience of cinema – this new production strengthens the narrative and emotional arc, almost overwhelmingly, at times, in its graphic realism.
Cinderella (Kerry Biggin in the first of two alternating casts), is a mousey thing in grey cardi and glasses, struggling to hold her own against her brash new step-family, now that her beloved father is wheelchair-bound as a result of active service. Her step-sisters' jibes are nothing to the creepy sexual advances of a Brylcreemed stepbrother, and, worse, the vicious spite of Michela Meazza's stepmother, styled with startling accuracy on Joan Crawford in the film Mommie Dearest.
Classic cinema references abound, from the Brief Encounter couple at Paddington Station, to the tarts in 1940's Waterloo Bridge, and the spangled slipper that painfully forces Cinderella to relive her physical trauma at the ball (The Red Shoes), though this is crudely intrusive, and should have been cut. Even the fairy godmother, styled as an albino Angel, is a nod to various screen roles of Fred Astaire, though with his clipped white barnet and camp silver three-piece suit, Christopher Marney is a dead ringer for Karl Lagerfeld.
Only when Sam Archer's concussed Pilot blows through the front door, literally shot from the sky to fulfil his romantic function, does Bourne wilfully subvert the traditional Cinderella template, introducing an element of Clara and the injured Nutcracker. Occasionally with Bourne, it seems he's trying to pack in a lifetime's dance-and-movie watching at one go. It's a pity, too, that his choreography is largely unmemorable, for all that it bowls the story along so competently. Only in the curtain call, as the entire cast turns to jitterbugging, does the dance element really catch fire.
Brotherston's sets are the making of the show, an Underground platform at Oxford Circus morphing in a blink into the Thames Embankment at dusk, followed by a vista of St Paul's half-screened by smoking debris. The interior of the Café de Paris, in all its gaudy splendour, is spectacularly destroyed before your eyes. The 82-strong recorded orchestra gives a splendid reading under Brett Morris, and easily accommodates the superimposed sound effects of falling bombs.
To 23 Jan (0844 412 4322)
Jenny Gilbert on ENB's new Nutcracker