Upon discovering that Prokofiev had written the score for Cinderella during the second world war, Matthew Bourne was inspired to set his production of the classic fairytale in London during the Blitz, drawing heavily upon the influence of the films of the period. It was a brilliant move. The pressure of wartime lends an air of urgency and poignancy to the romance between Cinderella and her Prince, a dashing RAF pilot named Harry and this 1997 production has been completely revised to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Blitz. Touchingly it is dedicated to Bourne’s father Jim who survived the war in London and died earlier this year.

Kerry Biggin as Cinderella, Christopher Marney as The Angel. credit Simon Annand
Kerry Biggin as Cinderella, Christopher Marney as The Angel. credit Simon Annand

Immediately we are transported back to the 1940s with a Pathe news reel opening the show which pays its own tribute to the classic cinema and stars of the silver screen. Joan Crawford inspires the style of the wicked stepmother, the fairy godmother is displaced by a godfather channelling Fred Astaire, and there is an echo of Brief Encounter in the final scene, set at Paddington station. The sumptuous, soaring score is recorded and played in surround sound, while Lez Brotherston’s fantastic set designs and costumes draw upon the restricted black and white movie palette of the time, reinforcing the sense of darkness in the tale.

In the first act we are introduced to the enclosed world of the bespectacled, 'put upon' Cinderella, wonderfully portrayed by Kerry Biggin, and her murderous stepmother, the show-stealing Michela Meazza. Cinders' fairy godfather introduces her to Harry but he is driven away by her forbidding family. As she tries to follow him Cinderella is knocked unconscious by a bomb blast and dreams of dancing with her love at a ball held at the glamorous Cafe de Paris.

Act two opens with a scene of devastation at the Cafe, which was in reality bombed heavily in 1941, but the fairy godfather restores the dancers. The choreography captures the thirst for life expressed by those for whom time may be cut short by more than a clock reaching midnight. Cinderella is transformed into a glamorous beauty, admired by all, and dances powerfully with Harry, Sam Archer, until the romantic spell is broken by a falling bomb.

In Act three we hear the full Prokofiev score while Harry desperately scours the streets of London to find his true love. He is almost destroyed by his quest, encountering prostitutes, villains and the violent side of city life. Finally he is taken to a Red Cross hospital to recover and reunited with fellow patient Cinderella. In the last scene the two leave the city to embark on their new life together.

Bourne’s Cinderella combines fun and nostalgia, dance and drama, in equal measure. There are a few gritty twists to the tale which might challenge younger members of the audience, but this is an original, entertaining and refreshing show, an inspiring alternative to the traditional seasonal fare.