I doubt that anyone loves Hollywood and Broadway musicals as much as Matthew Bourne. During lockdown he entertained friends and fans on social media with daily clips of mid-century song-and-dance numbers and now he has created several of his own, since The Midnight Bell is at least part musical, peppered with his cast lip-synching to some of the great (and a few barely known) songs of the 1930s. As a sturdy nod to his inspiration, one of them even takes place on a suggested screen at a Soho cinema with the spare members of his cast decked out as the audience. In so many ways, I sense that – rather like A Play Without Words – The Midnight Bell is Bourne’s love letter to all those formative influences of show business. The only auto-biographical touch missing is the young man waiting to grab an autograph from Netta Longdon (an out-of-work actress portrayed by Daisy May Kemp). 

Liam Mower and company in The Midnight Bell
© Johan Persson

Bourne has never included a synopsis in any of the programmes for his productions, going back 30 years. He prefers audiences to come to their own interpretations of his work. It’s a brave principle and one that this writer commends (many people can’t afford to buy a programme and it’s a dramaturgical failure if one can’t understand what is happening on stage without that prompt). I did, however, wonder at the interval if Bourne’s magic as a storyteller through movement and gesture had taken on too big a challenge in this mish-mash of six intertwined stories taken from various Patrick Hamilton novels and plays and thrown through the mixer of the imagined Fitzrovia public house of the title. At the end of Act 1, a couple of the stories had already come to the boil but the whole affair seemed to lack depth, a superficiality enhanced by the cluttered stage with all the actors' walking around, apparently aimlessly. I’m guessing that this was a device to show the busyness of Soho streets in the 1930s but it was overdone.

Paris Fitzpatrick and Bryony Wood in The Midnight Bell
© Johan Persson

Visually and aurally, The Midnight Bell is a delight. Lez Brotherston’s designs capture the essence of mid-century vintage with absolute panache and just as in Cinderella, The Red Shoes and (slightly later) A Play Without Words, The Midnight Bell oozes an evocation of pre-war Soho and Fitzrovia. Terry Davies has composed a modern score that is certainly no 1930s pastiche but that authenticity comes in the nine songs that create the musical feel in the original recordings of Al Bowlly (tragically killed in Soho during an air raid), Elisabeth Welch, Leslie A Hutchinson and others, but lip-synched by the performers. Michela Meazza’s rendition of The Nearness of You (sung by Welch) was so perfect one could easily have believed she was actually singing.

The Midnight Bell
© Johan Persson

The Midnight Bell is much less dance than theatre but, when needed, Bourne's choreography carries the story along outstandingly. There is an opening solo for Paris Fitzpatrick (as Bob, a waiter) which is extraordinarily fluid and builds into the opening musical number (Bowlly’s Man and his Dream) lip-synched with exaggeration by Fitzpatrick. The mix of man and woman miming to Hutchinson’s androgynous (and quite beautiful) performance of Cole Porter’s What is Thing Called Love was a particular highlight. 

Meazza portrayed Miss Roach, a lonely, sexually-repressed spinster, who drinks her port and lemon in The Midnight Bell’s snug, and is easy prey for seduction by Ernest Ralph Gorse, a cad no doubt on his way to becoming a WW2 spiv, raffishly played by Glen Graham. Both were outstanding performances – Meazza is stunning, bringing so much nuanced finesse to her complex role – and her revenge on the cad is both comic and triumphant. Bourne cleverly returned to the notion of two simultaneous scenes taking place in the same space, and in both acts, a single bedroom served to develop the relationships of two couples and, in doing so, Bourne maintained a pulsating momentum while avoiding being trapped in complexity.

Kate Lyons in The Midnight Bell
© Johan Persson

Even by the end, I didn’t feel totally invested in all the characters, some of whom necessarily remained sketchily drawn with thinner storylines. Some nuances of the various plots passed me by and I was nonplussed when my assumption of a local hoodlum turned out to be an off-duty policeman; one half of a secret gay relationship that brought another of Bourne's touches of authenticity to the storylines.

The second act provided several denouements to the various stories and filled in some of the clues that I must have missed in the opening scenes. It’s a risk to tell six stories in one go and although it paid off in the end, there is a lack of complete clarity on the journey, which would certainly be repaired in any subsequent viewings. Not that there is any worry on that score because I’m sure that last orders at The Midnight Bell will not be served for a very long time.