Gang-bangs and fist-fights

The Car Man | Old Vic, London
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The Independent Culture

After its long regional tour, Matthew Bourne's latest production for Adventures in Motion Pictures opened at the Old Vic on Wednesday. The company is banking a lot on its planned long-term association with this theatre, so the big question is, how well do they suit each other?

After its long regional tour, Matthew Bourne's latest production for Adventures in Motion Pictures opened at the Old Vic on Wednesday. The company is banking a lot on its planned long-term association with this theatre, so the big question is, how well do they suit each other?

Forget historical precedent; we all know that, although the Royal Ballet started there, it got out as soon as it could - and stayed out, leaving the Old Vic to drama. Forget, too, how horrified the renowned Lilian Baylis would probably have been that a show in her theatre should consist mostly of copulation, buggery, fist-fighting and murder.

What I did find disconcerting at first sight was the way the old-fashioned proscenium arch clashes with the sight that greets the audience on entry. The stage is already full of dancers pretending to go through the everyday life (that is, grappling, groping, whistling and bowling car tyres) of the Italian community in a small mid-Western American town circa 1960, named, with heavy irony, Harmony.

Still, Lez Brotherston's design for the piece, with its car repair shop and sleazy diner, is the show's strongest asset, and looks terrific once the house lights go down. Too bad that this evocation of reality is not matched in the choreography, which never makes any progress on the population's supposed activities other than gang-bangs and fist-fights.

The other big hit with the highly enthusiastic audience is the music. The familiar tunes from Bizet's opera Carmen are here presented in a considerably expanded arrangement by Terry Davies, which more than doubles the 40-minute ballet score Rodion Shchedrin made for his wife Maya Plisetskaya at the Bolshoi. It's played by a small orchestra (14 players on strings, percussion and keyboard only) that plays with enthusiasm under the musical director Brett Morris.

Enthusiasm is the best attribute of the cast, too. Character development is not a feature: only the victim, Angelo, shows more than one side of his nature, starting as a wimp and returning for revenge. Will Kemp carries that off well enough in the early scenes and excellently at the end, but the other leading men in the first cast are disappointing. Alan Vincent is nothing but a boring thug as Luca, the drifter anti-hero, while Scott Ambler is unconvincingly boring as Dino, who probably deserves to be killed for his tiresome flatulence.

The two leading women, Saranne Curtin and Etta Murfitt, are better. Both of them are direct, lively and sympathetic, although even Murfitt is defeated by Bourne's incredibly ham-fisted supposed parody of Martha Graham in the irrelevant and unfunny cabaret number. The supporting cast throw themselves without stint into their violent exercises; among them are two or three potentially interesting alternative casts for all the leads.

Booking to 9 Dec (020-7369 1762)

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