Matthew Bourne brings his version of Hamilton – the English writer’s novels, not the American musical – to theatrical life, set in 1930s London. Patrick Hamilton’s titles provide clues to the bleak stories Bourne adapts: Hangover Square, The Slaves of Solitude, Monday Morning. (Hamilton was better known for his two potboilers, Rope and Gas Light, made into film by Alfred Hitchcock.) So this is not a feel-good show, celebrating the relaxation of lockdown. It’s about lonely people leading lives of quiet desperation, seeking consolation in alcohol and seedy sexual encounters.
That said, Bourne is an expert entertainer. He captivates audiences with the aid of his regular collaborators: set and costume designer Lez Brotherston, lighting designer Paule Constable and composer Terry Davies. The story telling is lucid, distinguishing between characters’ inner imaginings and their actual situations. In The Midnight Bell, Bourne interweaves six stories, revealing through movement emotional longings beneath reserved exteriors. This is his best-choreographed production to date (credits go to him, the company and his associate artistic director, Etta Murfitt).
Because the movement language is so telling, the dancers’ lip-syncing to nine songs from the period seems superfluous. The device, borrowed from Dennis Potter’s TV series, The Singing Detective, enables inarticulate characters to identify their feelings with the trite lyrics of popular songs: ‘What is this thing called love?’, ‘The nearness of you’, ‘Maybe it’s because I love you too much’. The first lip-syncing by Bob (Paris Fitzpatrick), a young waiter, to Al Bowly’s voice singing ‘Man and his dream’ is a funny and surprising opening of the show, letting us in on his splendidly danced fantasy before he wakes in his bedsit and rushes off to work in the Soho pub, The Midnight Bell.
The regulars include generic figures – the drunk, the tart, the out-of-work actress and chorus boy from the West End, the ageing spinster, the prostitute. Their specific stories unravel over two acts as their lives criss-cross, often sharing the same locations. The opening scene bed can be a cheap hotel room, a forlorn bedsit, a crime site. A park bench in Fitzroy Square serves as a lovers’ trysting place; a beer-stained bar counter can double as a piano in a posh Lyons Corner House. Brotherston’s versatile sets, ingeniously lit, conjure up the nicotine-stained atmosphere of the seedy pub, the tawdry glamour of a palais de danse, the underground intimacy of a members’ club, the rain-streaked streets of Soho.
Davies’s score, recorded by the New Adventures orchestra, reflects the contrasting turmoil and loneliness of the cast’s predicaments. Overamplified (as ever in Sadler’s Wells), it can become intrusive, and the interpolation of the songs jars. We don’t need to be told in this non-verbal world what the characters are listening to and identifying with. The effect is no longer amusing or disconcerting. Because several stories overlap on stage, there’s little time and space for the solitude so effectively evoked in Edward Hopper’s paintings. Friendless figures at the edge of busy scenes tend to be overlooked when our attention is directed to encounters that might be key to the various plot lines.
Stories can be tricky to follow when the characters change outfits: is the woman in a negligée the one who was wearing a beret and trousers or the one in a pink coat? Michela Meazza, whose role is described as Miss Roach, a lonely spinster, is always recognisable, unclothed or in a prim suit. Compelling, more of a femme fatale than the unscrupulous vamp Netta (Daisy May Kemp), she has her revenge on the womanising cad (Glenn Graham), who tries to take advantage of her neediness. Netta has assumed that she can get away with exploiting lovelorn George (Richard Winsor) until she comes to a bad end. George, a central character from Hangover Square, suffers from psychotic delusions and epileptic fits. Though his condition, made worse by alcohol, is apparent, the others take no notice. They, too, turn to drink to drown their unhappiness.
By the end of the first act, nobody’s motives are to be trusted. The second act provides some light relief as the cast go out on the town. The set becomes a palais de danse, then an underground private members’ club, where same sex partners can dance together. In the dark square, the chorus boy’s clandestine ‘friend’ from Act I turns out to be a gay policeman. Liam Mower and Andrew Monaghan perform a sensual, intricate pas deux around and on the park bench. Theirs is probably the only mutually enjoyable coupling in the Fitzrovia/Soho saga.
The sole set-piece number takes place in a cinema (or is it in George’s damaged brain), where debonair dancers emulate musicals starring Fred Astaire or Jack Buchanan. The sequence is a reminder of the contrast between Hamilton’s low-life characters and the apparent sophistication of 1930s escapist films. There will be no happy endings for the people we have come to know, for a while, in Bourne’s latest creation. The Midnight Bell will continue to attract losers and loners; those with aspirations will save up for tea at a Lyons Corner House; all crave human contact, usually at a price. It’s a harsh vision of an inter-war era, softened by the company’s compassion for the characters they portray. If you want an easier option for a pleasurable night out in these troubled times, wait for Bourne’s fun-filled Nutcracker! on tour, with a Christmas season back at Sadler’s Wells.