Saturday, April 13

Matthew Bourne’s The Midnight Bell – Liverpool Playhouse

The bad boy of ballet is back with a sultry, sensual tale of lonely hearts and hedonism in 1930s London.

Delivered by Bourne’s New Adventures company, we’re introduced to a multitude of characters from the underbelly of Soho, who congregate at night in a local pub, the Midnight Bell, trying to escape the mundanity of their daily lives and connect with whoever may have them.

Heavily inspired by the novels of Patrick Hamilton, each distinct personality dances straight out of the pages of his work, to present an often-bleak view of the very human desire for love and acceptance.

A true ensemble piece, our dancers weave in and out of each other’s spaces and stories with wonderful fluidity and awareness of each other.

Immaculate choreography and timing pulls us into each picture postcard, often blurring the lines between fantasy and reality – Michaela Meazza’s frigid spinster Ms Roach unfreezes beautifully in the arms of the caddish Ernest (Glenn Graham) despite his penchant for thieving her money.

Ella the barmaid (Bryony Harrison) is endearing in her attempts to rebuff the advances of the ardent Mr Eccles (Reece Causton, whose characterization is excellent, albeit slightly undone by an unfortunate sartorial resemblance to Allo Allo’s Herr Flick).

Most compelling is the blossoming relationship between Chorus Boy Albert (Liam Mower) and newcomer Frank (Andrew Monaghan) whose professional standing, we discover in the second half, is completely incompatible with the highly illegal relationship. This tension between love and the law creates some outstanding and captivating duets.

Bringing the Hamiltonian mood of murky, gaslit streets to life is the superb set, costume and lighting designs of Lez Brotherston and Paule Constable. Low-lit window frames and the simple roof of a telephone box (with cast members cleverly concealing the receiver on their person) set a real sense of place and time.

What really makes the piece swing is Terry Davies sensational jazz soundtrack, switching between melancholic strings to heady drums to playful piano and back again without missing a beat.

There are a few mis-steps here and there. The period music that breaks through fits well but the performers lip-synching feels awkward and sucks a little momentum out of the show.

Very occasionally there are moves that look just a smidgen untidy. One character brilliantly establishes the constraints of the phone box, smacking an invisible wall, only to casually swing his arm through it and promptly undo the illusion. 

Finally, there is a jarring link made between mental illness and violence, as schizophrenic George Harvey Bone (danced with wonderful nuance by Richard Winsor) is haunted by visions of murdering a local actress he pines for. It may be truthful to the stylings of Hamilton’s work, but it is an uncomfortable watch for a modern-day audience.

As reality and daylight intrude on our troupe’s encounters, Bourne does throw us a few some green shoots of hope in and amongst the more bittersweet outcomes of the evening, most notably in the coy handholding from Albert and Frank. He also does reflect Hamilton’s own tendency to pepper proceedings with moments of humour, just as things start to look truly dark. 

It is a rich tapestry, eye-catching and absorbing from start to finish, making the streets of London look foreboding and enticing all at once. And for a period piece, convincingly timeless in its themes of loneliness, dreams of a better life and the choices we are prepared to make in pursuit of love.

The Midnight Bell is at the Liverpool Playhouse until the 23rd October. For tickets and further tour dates, please visit The Midnight Bell | New Adventures

Reviewer: Lou Steggals

Reviewed: 19th October 2021

North West End UK Rating: ★★★★