PATRICK Hamilton’s novels are steeped in a miasma of unfulfilled longing and broken dreams. Whilst individually they paint character portraits in minute detail, collectively they create a panorama of Soho and Fitzrovia in the 1930s and 40s – a mindset and a part of London that Hamilton was all too familiar with.
For his new full-length piece of dance theatre, Matthew Bourne has taken both the broad picture and several of the individual character studies, and blended them together into an evening of exquisite, subtle beauty.
The title and the setting for much of the action, the public house The Midnight Bell, comes from the first book in the trilogy Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky. From this trilogy Bourne brings us the waiter Bob, the barmaid Ella and the prostitute Jenny, around whose triangular relationship the books revolve. From the same source comes Mr Eccles, a persistent admirer of Ella. Into the mix he adds George and Netta from Hangover Square, Miss Roach from The Slaves of Solitude and Ernest Ralph Gorse, the swindler who inhabits a whole trilogy of books of his own.
Paris Fitzpatrick is the linchpin holding all of this together as Bob, and his gloriously sinuous performance is simply stunning, perfectly matched by Bryony Wood’s seductive Jenny. Meanwhile, playing a constant cat and mouse game between them, are the equally inspired pairing of Bryony Harrison and Reece Causton as Ella and her pursuer Mr Eccles.
The entire cast are practically flawless, but among them special mention must go to Liam Mower and Andrew Monaghan who play Albert and Frank. Bourne himself has created this pair of characters to add an aspect of storytelling that Hamilton very conspicuously left out of his books but certainly more than hinted at in his stage works – that of a gay couple. This chorus boy and a mysterious new customer at the Midnight Bell succeed in playing out their tempestuous relationship hidden in plain sight among the regulars, and Mower and Monaghan, whilst weaving their story amongst the others, do so with heart-stopping poignancy.
Terry Davies’ score is at once modern and evocative of the period, with rhythmic drive and soulfulness. He also inserts a selection of songs from the era, which offer a clever, witty opportunity for the dancers to lip-sync, cunningly adding dialogue to an otherwise wordless artform.
The set and costumes by Lez Brotherston are sumptuous in their detail, and it is rare to see so much solid, physical scenery and furniture on a dance stage. All of this is lit with characteristic atmospheric genius by Paule Constable.
Matthew Bourne has once again taken some unlikely source material to create an evening of extraordinary magic, and has really excelled himself. The Midnight Bell is a must-see for all lovers of dance theatre.
And the first thing that this reviewer did after the show was over? I went straight online to buy a ticket for Friday. The Midnight Bell, which has been touring since early September, runs at the Playhouse until Saturday and then continues via Poole, Coventry, Inverness and Bath.
Star rating – 5 stars
Review by Nigel Smith