Sweaty brows and sultry hips are the biz

The Car Man | Old Vic, London
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The Independent Culture

We have come to expect a lot from Matthew Bourne, the man who turned Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake into an acceptable reason for weeping in late-night taxis, and a West End hit so long-running that even your mother's next-door-neighbour had got around to seeing it twice. Is it possible he could do the same for Bizet's Carmen?

We have come to expect a lot from Matthew Bourne, the man who turned Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake into an acceptable reason for weeping in late-night taxis, and a West End hit so long-running that even your mother's next-door-neighbour had got around to seeing it twice. Is it possible he could do the same for Bizet's Carmen?

Not quite the same, no. Bizet's music and Mérimée's story have already seen countless stagings both operatic and balletic, radical and otherwise. The plot doesn't beg to be restrung to touch a 21st-century chord. And the score - so hummably familiar - requires no fresh talent to uncover hidden emotional depths.

That's not to say that The Car Man, Bourne's latest narrative dance show for Adventures in Motion Pictures, is not going to be a big success at the Old Vic, where it has landed following a long regional tour. It deserves to be mega. It's just that the equation of existing material to original inspiration is very different from Bourne's previous projects. Instead of developing a scenario which taps into the core inspiration of the music, this is very much about spinning a new story with some well-known tunes attached.

Bizet's score - orchestrated in intriguing ways by Terry Davies, substantially adding to an existing suite of arrangements by Rodion Shchedrin - is chopped about and reordered so as to efface all memory of the Carmen story. This is clearly intentional since The Car Man, apart from the heavy punning of the title and one dance number which makes a feature of cigarettes, makes little allusion to the opera but a great many to 1950s Hollywood thrillers.

In what has become a Bourne signature, a short opening scene introduces with cinematic clarity every character, theme and motivation in one seamless long-shot: the dusty mid-West community so incestuous, hot and bored that the arrival of a Brando-esque loner creates a major frisson; the slobby garage-owner Dino who knows his wife no longer fancies him and drinks to forget; the wife, Lana, who with one roll of her eyes and a sulky loll of the hips lets you know that the "Man Wanted" sign on the garage forecourt is more than just a job ad; and the wimp employee, Angelo, who painfully fails to connect with this brash and brutish world.

Lez Brotherston's do-it-all set contributes greatly to the flow of Bourne's narrative. A two-storey garage block, complete with grimy plate glass and rusting stairwells, abuts a greasy caff with table and chairs, while still leaving enough floor space for 16 performers dancing flat out and two life-size Chevvies with their bonnets up.

The first half is enjoyable enough, but lightweight. Full-company numbers predominate, translating elements of manual work - bowling car tyres, wiping sweaty brows - into rough-edged sequences of lively dance. While some of this looks like padding in typical musicals style, Bourne's unique talent is to make every item take the story forward, so that even during the breeziest knees-up there is often some sinister activity going on in the corner of the frame. This eventually culminates in a double betrayal, a murder, and an innocent framed.

After the interval, the mood darkens and stays dark, spurring Bourne to some of the most suspenseful direction I have seen on any stage at any time, as well as three superb coups de théâtre. Incredible that he does it using only movement. He is helped by fine solo performances, notably from Saranne Curtin's louche, tousle-haired adulteress whose slack-mouthed sexy smirk gradually loses its shine as the guilt begins to bite, and Alan Vincent as the well-hung seducer whose composure is exposed as a moral void.

Best of all is Will Kemp's nervy Angelo, the scapegoat whose tragedy is ultimately the making of him. His finely modulated transition from sexually confused timidity to decisive vengefulness - a process registered through his body as well as in his face - is a real tour de force. And though there's no happy-ever-after in this sordid tale, a grim satisfaction hovers over the final moments, between the grave-diggers' spades and the still-smoking gun.

'The Car Man': Old Vic, SE1 (020-7369 1762), to 9 December

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