First presented in the UK in 1997, Matthew Bourne's production of Cinderella has been revised and designed since, and is now playing at Sadler’s Wells for the Christmas season before touring nationally in spring and summer 2018. 

Liam Mower (the Angel), Ashley Shaw (Cinderella) in Bourne's <i>Cinderella</i> © Johan Persson
Liam Mower (the Angel), Ashley Shaw (Cinderella) in Bourne's Cinderella
© Johan Persson

Set in wartime London, with the threat of bombs falling and a shattered city, Bourne changes the story in some ways to update it and turn up the dial on its narrative power. Not only does it pass my personal programme test (can I follow the story without having to read the programme notes before and after?) there is actually no scene by scene breakdown of the story in the programme at all. There doesn’t need to be; despite a somewhat complex structure that would bamboozle another storyteller, Bourne’s dramatic instincts are, as usual, spot on and the story is crystal clear. 

The prince is transformed into a shell shocked RAF pilot, danced with subtlety and presence by Andrew Monaghan, and Cinderella is plain and shy, living under the thumb of her malicious step family. Ashley Shaw is excellent in this role, sprightly and girlish, and Bourne allows her more character development than is usual in a fairytale, showing us more of her inner life and despair than Grimm or Perrault. As they search for each other through a bombed out London in act three, I got a sense of the real romance of this story, in all its incarnations; that of two imperfect, troubled people having found each other in a chaotic world.

Michaela Meazza is a viciously glamorous stepmother with a luminous stage presence that draws all eyes to her character whenever she’s on stage. The action is directed by the mysterious Angel, danced by Liam Mower, instead of a fairy godmother. This is the only role that Bourne allows to be nebulous; who exactly is he and why is he helping Cinderella? I never worked it out, but it hardly matters when the rest of the production is steeped in realism, down to the very last details of the ensemble.

New Adventures in Matthew Bourne's <i>Cinderella</i> © Johan Persson
New Adventures in Matthew Bourne's Cinderella
© Johan Persson

I have always found the way Bourne uses every single one of his dancers on the stage to be one of the greatest strengths of his productions. The company of club goers, ARP wardens, soldiers and doctors are all so important, both to sweep the stage in movement and create a scene out of all the little detailed stories they act out. His dancers enthusiastically embody their characters at every turn, even while the main focus of the action is happening elsewhere. The result is a rich fictional world of the type rarely seen on stage, giving the impression that these people had lives before the curtain came up and they continue those lives as they move into the wings. This isn’t an easy feat for an art form that almost prides itself on artifice and illusion.

It’s a gorgeous production with typically excellent set and costume design by Bourne’s long time collaborator, Lez Brotherston. Stylish black and white costumes with touches of colour here and there in the set create a subconscious echo of the films of the period. Add to this the thrillingly immersive lighting design of Neil Austin and some very high quality projections by Duncan Maclean and the visual impact is stunning.

But it’s not only a treat for the eyes. Bourne uses Sergei Prokofiev’s score, composed at around the same time as the production is set, to great effect. This is ballet music at its lushest and most melodic. In my opinion, only Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev have given the world ballet scores that leap out of the orchestra pit and yearn to be danced to in this way, and Cinderella is a dark masterpiece, the thread of waltzing rhythms running all the way through it like a golden thread through a bolt of silk. I found there is always something humming beneath that sings of fairytales and magic, perhaps something hiding in the dark woods. Sound design by Paul Groothuis adds the powerful extra dimension of the wartime setting. Although I have never heard an air raid siren and known it to be a sign that German planes are coming for my home and family, such is the power of this episode of our history in the collective unconscious of this nation that my heart still skips with danger as the alarm rang out into the theatre in the last days of 2017.

Andrew Monaghan (Harry) and Ashley Shaw (Cinderella) in Bourne's <i>Cinderella</i> © Johan Persson
Andrew Monaghan (Harry) and Ashley Shaw (Cinderella) in Bourne's Cinderella
© Johan Persson

The strength of Bourne’s work always lies in the way the he reimagines his stories so completely that they are at once satisfying versions of the original source material and simultaneously new stories that have something to say to us in our times. This Cinderella continues in this vein, offering a rewarding but thoughtful theatrical treat.