Well-oiled lusts and steamy lubrications

The Car Man | Lyceum, Sheffield
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The Independent Culture

Celebrity is a mixed blessing. Where once Matthew Bourne could tweak his creations into shape at discreet fringe venues, now his every move is news. The Car Man is his first production for Adventures in Motion Pictures in three years, hot on the heels of their barn-storming reprise of that Swan Lake. And much as Bourne and his producer would like to slip this new show quietly in and out of provincial theatres before its grand slam in London in the autumn (at the Old Vic, no less), it just ain't going to happen. Bourne is one of the hottest directoral talents on the British stage. Already The Car Man is looking like another hit.

Celebrity is a mixed blessing. Where once Matthew Bourne could tweak his creations into shape at discreet fringe venues, now his every move is news. The Car Man is his first production for Adventures in Motion Pictures in three years, hot on the heels of their barn-storming reprise of that Swan Lake. And much as Bourne and his producer would like to slip this new show quietly in and out of provincial theatres before its grand slam in London in the autumn (at the Old Vic, no less), it just ain't going to happen. Bourne is one of the hottest directoral talents on the British stage. Already The Car Man is looking like another hit.

It helps to have a taste for dodgy puns. Subtitled "An Auto-Erotic Thriller" (it's set in a garage) this one takes its inspiration from classic movies of the 1950s and 1960s, rather than from its score, which is Bizet's Carmen at one remove. This is the pared-down version for sparse strings and percussion arranged by Rodrion Shchedrin, with additions in a similar vein by Terry Davies: useful in that you get all the well-known tunes in an unfamiliar format and a different order, and soon give up trying to find parallels with the original Carmen story. There aren't any.

Bourne's tale takes place in the American Midwest, the land of the grimy drive-in diner where couples canoodle among the ketchup and mustard, and the arrival in town of a well-hung stranger is about as eventful as it gets. That is until said stranger beds the bar-owner's wife, and elopes with her after bludgeoning hubby with a spanner. Fate and malice combine to lay the blame on an innocent garage worker, who has his own reasons for not naming the true killer: he was having an affair with him, too.

As in previous AMP shows, The Car Man's chief strength is its narrative clarity, the far-reaching reverberations of the plot, and a consummate control of dramatic tension. The choreography is less striking, though always highly watchable and full of stylish vigour. The full-company dances (there are perhaps too many of these) make inventive reference not just to early Sixties social dances, but also to manual labour and pastimes of the period such as boxing. There is an awful lot of sex, which may seem an odd thing to object to in a story fuelled by heat and desire, but in both Swan Lake and Cinderella Bourne succeeded in suggesting much more than he showed. In The Car Man, the chorus is at it like rabbits.

The best dance comes in the solo numbers, including a tour de force for Alan Dexter's hunky stranger, wheeling off tables and chairs while swigging beer and waggling his bum to Bizet's swaying seguidilla, landing back in his seat on the triumphant final chord just as the waitress plonks the food down. There's also a memorably randy dance for Saranne Curtin's Lana, voraciously slapping the floor in her waitress pinny like Barbarella on Viagra. And some painfully awkward material for Will Kemp's sexually confused Angelo.

But to review an AMP show just for the dance is like criticising a movie on the strength of its technology. It's the way Bourne uses dance to integrate musical and dramatic elements that makes his work so compelling. And in its best moments The Car Man has the visual fluency of Hitchcock or Howard Hawks - tight-focusing on a taut exchange in an upstairs window, panning out on a sozzled party scene to show grim goings-on in the corner, peering inside the murderer's head to show his guilty hallucinations. Yet again, Lez Brotherston's designs are integral to the success of these techniques: dirty glass, rusted fire-escapes and oily denims give not only the right look but also the right sound (and almost, one imagines, smell) to the whole. And like the best film noir, the plot keeps you guessing right up to the final minute.

'The Car Man': Nottingham Theatre Royal (0115 989 555) 5-10 June; then Newcastle Theatre Royal (0191 232 2061); High Wycombe Swan (01494 512000); Lowry, Salford (0161 876 2000); New Victoria, Woking (01483 761144); Congress, Eastbourne (01323 412000); Milton Keynes Theatre (01908 606090); Norwich Theatre Royal (01603 630000). Finally Old Vic, London SE1 (020 7344 4444) from 13 Sept

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