Play Without Words, Sadler's Wells, London

 

Matthew Bourne’s Play Without Words tells a story in body language. His swinging sixties characters play out sexual power games in the tilt of a head, the shift of stance. When a dancer moves her weight to the other hip, it’s blatantly provocative; pulling a dressing gown tighter is a form of surrender.

Created in 2002 as part of an experimental season at the National Theatre, this Olivier-winning production is Bourne’s most original work, moving away from the familiar stories of hits such as Swan Lake or Cinderella. It’s loosely based on Joseph Losey’s film The Servant, but draws on an entire era of British films, design and fashion.

In Lez Brotherston’s brilliant set, Centre Point and the Post Office Tower loom over genteel Knightsbridge, utilitarian backstairs jostling up against the sweep of a grand staircase. The central character Anthony has a fiancée and a complacent upper-class life, disrupted by the arrival of an ominously polite manservant, a flirty housemaid and a check-shirted Angry Young Man.

When the servant arrives, Anthony blinks: three men circle in his vision, resolving into one. It’s the production’s cheekiest joke, because Bourne gives us three of almost everybody. Multiple versions of the same character play out variations on each scene, side by side. Seductions go fast or slow, confrontations have a different edge. At one point, a broken Anthony clings to – well, does it matter? Versions of him sob into the laps of three different characters, but none of them can help him.

Terry Davies’ jazz score is haunting and joyously groovy, switching from jazz clubs and parties to late night loneliness. A dripping kitchen tap becomes part of the music, a spare soundtrack for Anthony’s encounter with his housemaid. This is the sexiest of Bourne’s duets, just because it’s so repressed: both quiver at the least touch of a fingertip. Dressed in a borrowed cricketing sweater, she stretches a hand out behind her, very slowly getting closer to his bare chest.

The whole production is tautly unified. The intricate telling and retelling of the same story is never confusing: the New Adventures dancers draw their characters so precisely, from the social comedy of parties and pop television to the way everybody succumbs to temptation and change. Music, design and performances build up an exact picture of a world, a moment in time.

Until 5 August. Box office 0844 412 4300.

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