If his more recent works are Hollywood blockbusters, Matthew Bourne’s Early Adventures is more like quaint, arthouse cinema (a metaphor that seems very apt regarding Bourne’s filmic inspirations). The whole evening has a gentle feel, more subdued and less emotionally diverse than Bourne’s full length productions. This is presumably attributed to the fact that all three works deal more with concepts and ideas opposed to narrative storylines (which more naturally lend themselves to an emotional journey), however this style of choreography brings its own charm, creating a light-hearted and relaxed atmosphere.

The first piece of the evening Watch with Mother was originally choreographed in 1991. Transformed into a 1950s-esque gymnasium (designed by long-time collaborator Lez Brotherston), the stage becomes a playground for sentimentally exploring children’s games. Intricate, quirky and often gestural movements establish relationships between the performers, as they interact with a kitsch joviality. However, this seemingly innocent exploration of Joyce Grenfell’s Nursery School sketches at times reveals darker undertones, as an isolated male solo hints at exclusion and reminds us of how cruel children can be. More than this, a punch in the balls, girl’s proudly presenting their chests and a bouncing, energetic piggy back ride all allude to the sexual revelations these youngsters will soon experience.

In an age where many might believe there is little to celebrate about the English nation, Town and Country reminds of the very British quality of which we can still be proud – the ability to laugh at ourselves. Another product of 1991, this work is an exploration of “national character and identity from a by-gone era” separated into two halves exploring the realm of the city and the realm of the country, as the title suggests. Stand out moments include the interactions between two aristocratic characters and their servants, their interweaving and close physical relationships contrasting their emotional separation – serving as a reminder of the idiosyncrasies of the Great British class system. From a mimetic whistle stop production of Brief Encounter, to a polite (rather than passionate) love affair between two English gentleman, from a clog dancing to woodland creature puppetry, a heart-wrenching yet laughter-worthy hedgehog death, and the dancer’s gliding across the stage on scooters, Town and Country is a chocolate box of ideas strung together in a revue like format.

The work utilises the music of Noël Coward, Eric Coates and Percy Grainger, and this exploitation of music familiar to the public is a particularly refreshing element of Bourne’s choreography. Whilst the use of popular music can be tricky due to audiences feeling protective over their favourite tracks, and preconceived ideas about how they should be interpreted – something I personally encountered when Edith Piaf’s Hymne à l’amour featured in The Infernal Galop – the bravery to do so enables Bourne to welcome his audience in. It is as if the performance becomes a mutual discussion about shared music tastes or a conversation reminiscing about great artists of a by gone era.

The Infernal Galop (1989) concludes the evening with a dose of “je ne sais quoi”. This work very much enters the realm of stereotyping, yet Bourne cheekily gets away with it under the guise of presenting the French through the eyes of the English, the joke more centred around the ridiculous British notions of their near neighbours, rather than on the French nation itself. Every cliché you can think of when you think of “Gay Paree” is included in this farcical piece, and just as you think it can’t get any more prosaic, a group of blue and white striped sailors enter the stage and begin seducing a merman accompanied by Charles Trenet’s La Mer. That combined with the slow motion, passionate “scenes of a sexual nature” and a can-can conclusion, creates vignettes that are recognisable, but are hilarious due to this fact. By playing with a shared cultural humour, Bourne yet again embraces his audience, allowing them to feel like they are “in” on the joke, which seems to be the resounding feature of Matthew Bourne’s Early Adventures. The evening’s quirky wit may not take you on a rollercoaster of emotional or intellectual discovery, but it provides a great stimulus for laughter, an element of theatre that seems to be very much lacking in dance in recent times.

Emily May

9th March 2017