There’s never a printed synopsis in a New Adventures programme. Sir Matthew Bourne is one of dance’s great storytellers, so there’s really no need. Where Christopher Wheeldon’s (very fine) new creation Like Water for Chocolate comes with a verbose 1100-word synopsis, The Car Man pitches up carrying no such baggage, just cast biographies and an interview with Bourne about the work’s history and how he's revised it for the company’s debut at the Royal Albert Hall.   

Sir Matthew Bourne's The Car Man
© Johan Persson

It helps that the music is instantly recognisable. The title The Car Man is a play on Carmen and Bourne’s action takes Bizet’s score – as dressed up by Rodion Shchedrin – and refashions it as the story, loosely based on The Postman Always Rings Twice, of a drifter who finds work as a car mechanic in an American Midwest town in the 1960s and turns everyone’s lives upside down in a hot, sweaty tale of lust, murder and betrayal. 

Will Bozier (Luca) and Zizi Strallen (Lana) in Sir Matthew Bourne's The Car Man
© Johan Persson

Shchedrin’s ingenious arrangement, written for his wife, prima ballerina Maya Plisetskaya, to dance in Alberto Alonso’s Carmen Suite at the Bolshoi in 1967, uses only strings plus a bewildering battery of percussion. It’s only 40 minutes long, so Terry Davies expanded it with more numbers from the opera, orchestrated in the same Shchedrin vein. Experienced ears will spot the seams, but it’s largely effective, even more so that a live orchestra is used, mostly hidden from view behind one of the production’s billboards, but amplified for stadium-filling sound where every pizzicato stabs violently. 

Zizi Strallen (Lana) and Will Bozier (Luca) in Sir Matthew Bourne's The Car Man
© Johan Persson

Will Bozier is Luca in the “Chevrolet” cast (the alternating team is “Cadillac”) and danced press night with smouldering magnetism. Zizi Strallen’s Lana sizzled, fired up by Luca’s presence which leads to their brutal murder of her volatile husband, garage owner Dino. Strallen was beguiling into the Seguidilla before turning colder, more calculating in Act 2 when she and Luca have run off to the city to fritter away Dino’s money. Paris Fitzpatrick was affecting as the gauche Angelo, Luca’s other sexual conquest in Act 1, who is framed for Dino’s murder and winds up in jail, which hardens him for revenge. His first pas de deux with Kayla Collymore’s Rita was all sweetness and innocence, dancing on air. Alan Vincent, who created the role of Luca in 2000, returns once more as Dino, delivering a great performance, particularly when his ghost haunts Luca and the two are involved in a very unusual duet where Bozier lifts him a number of times. 

Kayla Collymore (Rita) and Paris Fitzpatrick (Angelo) in Sir Matthew Bourne's The Car Man
© Johan Persson

Bourne’s choreography is also cheeky – literally, in the shower scene – and there’s the Broadway pizzazz of Jerome Robbins’ West Side Story in some of the earlier ensemble numbers. It's exhilarating stuff. 

How well does it translate to the Royal Albert Hall? Unlike some of the arena operas and ballets there, this is not strictly “in the round”, although Bourne does have a road running through the Stalls to the stage, not that it’s utilised much. “Welcome to the town of Harmony”, the billboard tells us, “population 875”. Well, that’s population growth from the show's original 375 and Bourne has expanded his New Adventures cast to fill the space. That brings its own problems in that there is so much action – every dancer in the company plays a named character and you can bet each has a backstory – that it can be difficult to know where to look. 

Sir Matthew Bourne's The Car Man
© Johan Persson

Those billboards also double as video screens, offering pre-filmed close-ups of key characters that sometimes feel cheesy and in one case – the ghost of Dino spewing blood – prompts audience titters rather than horror. But in Act 2, where Angelo escapes jail and plots his revenge, Bourne dials up the dramatic tension and you could hear a pin drop. The Car Man is still a hot show and it leaves scorch marks in its wake.

****1