Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty, Sadler’s Wells, London


Matthew Bourne’s latest production starts with Tchaikovsky, turns left at Dracula and ends up somewhere around Tim Burton Gothic. It’s a tussle between Bourne’s gifts as a producer and his material’s attempts to fight back.

Tchaikovksy’s Sleeping Beauty, one of ballet’s best-loved scores, had its premiere in 1890. That’s where Bourne starts his version, with an opulent fin-de-siècle court. His Aurora comes of age with a tennis party on an Edwardian lawn, and wakes up in the present day.

Baby Aurora is delightful, a scene-stealing puppet who escapes from her cot and climbs the curtains as her nursemaids coo and fret over her. She grows up to be implausibly free-spirited. Bourne can be brilliant at repression, his characters chafing against the constraints of their time. Aurora doesn’t even notice them: she goes romping with Leo, the young gamekeeper, in her underwear. Hannah Vassallo has a light jump and confident stage presence, but she’s stuck with Aurora’s sugary child-of-nature persona.

The story has been substantially tweaked. The wicked fairy Carabosse dies after the prologue. Her revenge is carried on by her son, Caradoc, played by the same dancer. It’s an over-complicated plot device, needing a lot of explanatory text projected onto the frontcloth.

Bourne’s other big change is his hero. Leo loves Aurora so much that he becomes a vampire, so that he’ll still be alive after her hundred years’ sleep. Bourne’s fairies are all vampires, with dear little wings on their backs and dark shadows round their eyes.

That’s a lot more plot than there is in traditional Beauties – which makes sense, since Bourne’s strong point is storytelling, rather than pure dance display. But Tchaikovsky’s score was written to show off dancers, with number after gleaming number crying out for exultant steps. Bourne doesn’t have them; he cuts and reorders his recorded score, but still struggles to fill the music.

He does pounce on its hints of drama. Tchaikovsky’s cat duet works wittily well as a vampire ball, with edgy, predatory dancers. There are sharp character moments. Ben Bunce’s Caradoc tries to kiss Aurora awake, then pushes her sleeping body petulantly away. Dominic North’s sweet Leo flinches when Aurora first touches his wings, then turns to let her see.

Lez Brotherston’s designs are magnificent, from Aurora’s moonlit nursery to an enchanted forest of bare birch trees lit with paraffin lamps. He and Bourne have a sure sense of atmosphere. There’s a gothic chill as the gates close on the sleeping Aurora, and a touch of wonder about the passing of time.

Until 26 January, then touring. Box office 0844 412 4300.