Matthew Bourne's Early Adventures, Sadler's Wells, London

3.00

 

Sometimes you see the joke without laughing. Early Adventures looks back to some of Matthew Bourne’s first works, before Swan Lake made him an international name.

We're already in classic Bourne territory, with comedy masking yearning and repression, woven through with sharp movie references. For all the wit, this revival is hit and miss. At its best, it’s funny and touching at once. Elsewhere, you can tell that it should be.

Spitfire, created in 1988, is the earliest of these works. It’s also the most familiar, since Bourne has revived it for galas – where it’s been funnier than this. The “advertisement divertissement” mixes men’s underwear advertising and the showpieces of classical ballet. Male dancers pose heroically in their unglamorous pants, getting in and out of ludicrous positions while clinging firmly to their dignity. This time, the cast are too broad, nearly in on the joke.

Town & Country, from 1991, is a celebration of Englishness: stiff upper lips, class distinction, eccentricity and tweed. “Town” starts with Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance, with two hotel servants playing along on ukuleles. It’s a world of seething primness, servants fixing masters with gimlet-eyed bossiness. Bourne has fun doubling things: a man and a woman are bathed and dressed by their servants, with pointed musical timing for everything from towelling off to trouser buttons.

Another scene sprints through Brief Encounter in stereo: all the movie’s iconic moments squeezed into five minutes, twice. Two couples meet in the railway refreshment room, racing through their affair side by side. The parody is clever and affectionate, but this performance needs more heart.

Bourne’s dancers are fluent, sometimes glib. Town & Country is fondly remembered as Bourne’s breakthrough into greater emotional depth: I’d like more of that. Oddly, we get it in the “Country” section, where a wonderful throwaway joke with a hedgehog glove puppet extends, develops, and twists back in the finale to become weirdly touching.

The Infernal Galop is a franglais dance, a British view of Gay Paree from pissoirs to sailor boys. Again, some of the jokes come to life better than others. The pissoir dance has men peeking in stylised unison. It’s followed by a sexual encounter that keeps being interrupted by a horrifyingly supportive chorus line, who keep urging the couple on with maracas. The final cancan is danced by a cast of supercilious Parisians, moving at disdainful half speed.

Until 26 May. Box office 0844 412 4300. Touring until 30 June. www.new-adventures.net

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