It is almost eight years to the day since The Car Man was last revived at Sadler’s Wells (having premiered in 2000) and it seems even better than I recall, notably in a fast-paced and absorbing first act where narrative, choreography, great performances and Lez Brotherston’s stunning designs mix to form a top-drawer example of the successful New Adventures style.
There is neon; there are Cadillacs; there are wet fries and cold beer; bright colours and billowing skirts; there’s bare-knuckle fighting; and plenty of steam – both actual and metaphorical – giving credence to the industrial, climatic and – most especially – the erotic connotations of heat’s misty signature. Set in the early 1960s, somewhere in mid-West America, the fictitious one-street town of Harmony (pop: 375) is one very hot place!
This is not Carmen, nor even a close approximation of those familiar plot lines. The score – played live by an orchestra conducted by Ben Pope – is Bizet’s opera as reimagined first by Rodion Shchedrin’s Carmen Suite – written in 1967 for Alberto Alonso’s ballet (made for Shchedrin’s wife, Maya Plisetskaya) – which has attracted many other choreographers subsequently (in addition to Bourne, Mats Ek, Ted Brandsen, Jorma Elo and Richard Alston have all had a go at it). Mostly they have stuck to Shchedrin’s 40-minute adaptation for strings and percussion to create a one-act affair, but Bourne goes for broke, and his regular associate artist, Terry Davies, has added a soundscape that brings relevance to place and time.
Davies is best-known for his film scores and, as always, there are strong cinematic references in Bourne’s vista: narrative elements reflect The Postman Always Rings Twice and Body Heat tempered by the visual influences of Grease. A mysterious drifter – Luca – arrives in Harmony and fills a “Man Wanted” vacancy at the local garage-come-diner. This phlegmatic loner quickly becomes top dog among the car men and seduces both the wife of the garage owner and her younger sister’s uncool boyfriend, thus unleashing a potentially explosive cocktail of poisonous secrets that eats its way through this tiny community.
In 2000 and 2007 the role of Luca was played by Alan Vincent who brought a tough brutality and a powerful physical presence to this Clint Eastwood style of no-nonsense drifter, and fifteen years on from creating the role, Vincent has moved upstairs and into the office, to portray the brutish Dino Alfano (owner of Dino’s diner and garage) and he manages this role-reversal transition with great effect.
Chris Trenfield brings a grimy earthiness to Luca, the ambiguous sexual predator who pins the murder of his lover’s husband on his other lover. Dino’s young, frustrated wife, Lana (Bourne’s tribute to Lana Turner) is played with vivacious charm and arresting expressiveness by Zizi Strallen (a strong replacement for Michela Meazza, whom I thought to be virtually irreplaceable in this role). She may be in a loveless marriage but Strallen’s Lana is no victim; she oozes the lazy sexuality and sharp tongue of a southern Italian beauty but with all her Neapolitan sensibilities worn away through the great American wash.
Liam Mower – a Billy Elliot in the musical’s original cast – played the victimised, bullied Angelo with finely-judged sensitivity and Kate Lyons was touchingly sentimental as Rita (Lana’s younger sister with a soft spot for Angelo). This pair enjoyed the best of the romantic duets, which punctuated the fast-paced, exciting ensemble dances of the first act.
Lyons returned to double-up as the girl in the cameo of a French-themed cabaret act – like La Danse Apache without the violence – at the beginning of Act two (partnered by Andrew Monaghan and Dan Wright, the busiest of all the dancers since he was also a mechanic, a cop and a gaoler!) This second act doesn’t match the perfection of the opening session, at the end of which the story has been mostly told. Act 2 needs padding to delay reaching a climax too soon and it shows. The random night club scenes and flashbacks lose the narrative momentum that was so slick throughout the first act although there is strong visual compensation in the seamless engineering that allows Brotherston’s amazing set to switch between a night club, a jail and the garage/diner without any break in continuity.
One can have fun spotting references and theatrical puns, which appear to litter the scenarios. I tried to concentrate on MacMillanisms: Angelo’s brutal rape by the gaoler who he murders to escape (Manon), his subsequent manic, suicidal threats to shoot himself and Rita (Mayerling) and the dodgy club – “Le-Beat-Route” – with its Madame-hostess (like the hotel particulier of Manon or Mitzi Caspar’s whorehouse in Mayerling). Incidentally, Bourne’s Caspar-like club-owner, Shirley, is played by Pia Driver with a grey-streaked hairdo that makes her the spitting image of the English actress, Eleanor Bron.
Matthew Bourne could probably colour the clouds with sunshine. He can certainly make a story of betrayal, jealousy and brutal murder seem like an episode of Happy Days. A show that contains full frontal nudity, an orgy (much more sexy with classy, vintage bras replacing topless nakedness) and the blood and gore of a head being bashed in by a monkey wrench – not to mention the subsequent ghostly apparition of that blood-soaked victim – really ought to be X-certificated but somehow the ebullient, comic book, cinematic, upbeat feel of The Car Man overcomes all such sensitivity.
It’s not Carmen, but The Car Man gives us another great story, simply told in inventive and sensational dance theatre with an outstanding cast throughout. Later in the run, from 21 July, the celebrated ABT Principal dancer, Marcelo Gomes, will take the role of Luca. He has a tough act to follow.