Cinderella gets into the Blitz spirit

Cinderella, you shall go to the bombing. Matthew Bourne has lived up to his reputation for subverting the traditional, setting his ballet in the Blitz. SIMON PARKIN reports.

Barrage balloons loom in a sky scoured by searchlights, while Cinderella is chauffeured to the ball on a motorbike to the shriek of sirens and an escort of dancing air-raid wardens.

Matthew Bourne — the genius of popular dance who famously cast men as cygnets in a sinister Swan Lake — has had another brilliant brainwave.

He has brought his own brand of wit to the classical ballet Cinderella, setting it in wartime London to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Blitz.

The original production opened in the West End in 1997, following the enormous success of Swan Lake the year before, and was also staged in Los Angeles.

However while other hits from New Adventures, Bourne's innovative and prolific dance company, like Highland Fling, Nutcracker!, Car Man and Edward Scissorhands, have been regularly revived it had not been re-staged until the anniversary gave him the choreographer the perfect opportunity.

The leaner, meaner and wittier revival is a fresh triumph and the incendiary result arrives at Norwich Theatre Royal next week and is already a sell-out.

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Revisiting one of his lesser known works was personal as the show is a �tribute to his mum, dad and grandparents who sat out the terrifying nightly Nazi air assaults in their homes in the East End.

'Its something I have wanted to do for a very long time,' he says of the revival. 'Ever since we had the chance to re-work the production for LA in 1999, I have wanted those revisions to be seen in the UK.

'New Adventures now has a very loyal and ever-growing audience, not just in London, but also throughout the UK. Many of our audience have not had the chance to see it, and with the 70th anniversary of the Blitz, it seemed like the perfect time to create this new production with the current generation of dancers.

'I dedicated the original production of Cinderella to my grandparents, who kept their families together, in London, during the Blitz. My parents living streets away from each other in the East End, survived the nightly onslaught, I'm happy to say, and they both loved to tell me stories from this time; the excitement, the fear and the friendships made.

'Now they are all gone, but I hope that, the spirit and courage of not just my family, but of everyone who made sacrifices, or who found or lost love during this time are captured in this piece, which has been made in tribute to them.'

The starting point for this particular piece of dance theatre was the Prokofiev music, which he loved from seeing the Royal Ballet production by Suffolk's late, great Frederick Ashton.

'Prokofiev's Cinderella was premiered at the Bolshoi in 1946 and Ashton's much performed version followed in 1948, but I was intrigued to hear that Prokofiev had actually written the score during the Second World War, and this got me thinking,' he recalls. 'Was this dark period in our history, somehow captured within the music?

'I felt that it was, and the more I delved into the Cinderella story, it seemed to work so well in the wartime setting. Darkly romantic in tone, it speaks of a period when time was everything, love was found and lost suddenly and the world danced as if there was no tomorrow.'

The wartime setting is fully realised in Bourne's interpretation. The ballroom where Cinders meets her prince — reimaged as Harry, an RAF pilot — is based on the Soho nightclub Cafe de Paris, where swing bandleader Ken 'Snakehips' Johnson was among the 80 killed when two mines exploded on the dance floor in 1941.

The sets and costumes of long-time collaborator Lez Brotherston are suitably spectacular and all dancers dazzle almost equally. Cinders and her pilot rescuer, and a vast cast of step-sisters and step-brothers, boyfriends and girlfriends, soldiers and tarts and dance-hall guests all take their turns to impress.

For a man whose original company was called Adventures in Motion Pictures, clearly much of his influence comes from the cinema — in this case the 1946 Powell and Pressburger classic A Matter of Life and Death, in which David Niven stars as an RAF pilot whose fate after a plane crash is fought over by death and heavenly agents. He pulls through, thanks to a male guardian angel and the woman he loves.

'In essence he is saved by the power of love,' says Matthew. 'My Cinderella does not tell this exact story, by any means, but its fanciful, and particularly English whimsy and romance is, I hope, captured in our story of wartime love and conflict. Our 'Angel' is also male, rather than the usual 'Fairy Godmother', but he is based more on Cary Grant and Fred Astaire, who played a dancing angel on several occasions.'

He adds: 'Look out also for glimpses of other classic movies in the production, such as Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard from Brief Encounter in our final railway station scene, and the prostitutes from the Vivien Leigh and Robert Taylor classic Waterloo Bridge in our London Underground sequence.

'I must also pay tribute to one of my favourite 1940's actresses, Joan Crawford, who inspired Lez Brotherston and myself to create Sybil, our glamorous Stepmother.'

The sets of a shell-shocked family house, the blackout, the streets of London, the Thames embankment and a convalescence home, splendidly convey the war-time spirit — the scene further sketched in Path� news reels at the start of Acts I and III.

But Act II is the show-stopper — literally. It opens with sudden darkness and an enormous explosion and then the lights return on a scene of carnage in the blitzed Caf� de Paris ballroom.

But the party, like the war, went on. Some survivors staggered to other clubs, while one stretcher case was cheered on declaring: 'At least I didn't have to pay for dinner.'

'On this particular night, the club received a direct hit, killing or seriously injuring nearly 100 dancing couples, cabaret artistes and staff, including the 26 year old bandleader, Ken 'Snake-hips' Johnson,' says Matthew. 'Our magical Act II bombed ballroom, with its ghostly dancing couples and the haunting waltzes of Prokofiev, owes much to this tragic night. It represents Cinderella's dream, as well as her nightmare.'

How historically accurate did he try to make the Blitz Cinderella? 'We have tried to be as accurate as possible and Lez Brotherston, the company and I have spent many hours researching the period and characters through old movies, documentaries and public information films,' he says. 'I will admit, here to at least one historical inaccuracy, though. We do have a GI American soldier character called 'Buster', who I couldn't resist putting in for the sake of variety. The Americans, however, did not enter the war until the beginning of 1942.'

Did this revival give him the chance to revisit elements of the staging? 'The 'war-time' setting has obviously been retained but our original production has been completely lost, and Lez and I have had a chance to take a fresh look at the piece from every angle,' he said.

'This is essentially a new production created to tour throughout the UK and beyond. It is designed very much like a silver screen classic in black and white and the magic and colour is added through the lighting designs of Neil Austin.

'Lez is always very thorough when it comes to period designs and therefore our costume designs are a mix of the everyday wear of ordinary Londoners and servicemen and women, as well as the more flamboyant designs of 1940's movie stars. It beautifully captures the realism of our 'darkest hour' along with the escapism and glamour of Hollywood.'

The innovation does however mean that the entirety Prokofiev score isn't used. 'When I first created the piece in 1997, I attempted to choreograph the entire three act score with no re-ordering or cuts. This was in no small part due to the fact that Prokofiev's artist son, Oleg, had asked if he could come to rehearsals and sketch the dancers,' he recalls.

'Although, I was wary of making any changes to his father's music, whilst he was in the room with us, he, of course, turned out to be a delightful man, full of enthusiasm for what we were doing, even saying how much his father would have loved our interpretation.

'I have since made a few small cuts and revisions, to help our story, but am proud to say that our Act III remains completely intact, full of wonderful music that Ashton had cut from his famous version.'

Good and bad, and courage and cowardice, are at their sharpest in war-time, and the Second World War most of all. Matthew says: 'I am very proud that my grandparents kept their families together in the East End during the Blitz – and I have given four of my characters their first names.'

A wonderful catalogue also reminds us that Buckingham Palace was hit on the same night as the Caf� de Paris, almost exactly 70 years ago, and that the Queen – later the Queen Mum – confessed that the famous stiff upper lip of public appearances could tremble in private.

She wrote to a favourite niece on the subject of air raids: 'I turn bright red and my heart hammers. In fact, I'm a beastly coward. But I do believe that a lot of people are, so I don't mind!'

And then she signed off with a cheery goodbye summing up the spirit of the times: 'Tinketytonk, old fruit, and down with the Nazis!'

t Matthew Bourne's Cinderella is at Norwich Theatre Royal from March 22-26m returns only, 01603 630000,