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REVIEW: The Midnight Bell at the Everyman Theatre

The Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham

Devised, directed and choreographed by Sir Matthew Bourne OBE, with additional choreography by the company
Produced by New Adventures
Saturday, 11 September 2021

Rating: ★★★

Matthew Bourne’s latest work is set in the louche drinking dens and seedy rented rooms of 1930s London.  Adapted from the loosely autobiographical novels of writer, dramatist and alcoholic Patrick Hamilton, this production brings to life the booze-sodden, violent netherworld that he inhabited.
Bourne has woven several of Hamilton’s stories around a single location, The Midnight Bell (also the title of a Hamilton novel), a pub where lonely souls gather to drown their sorrows.  The Midnight Bell’s regulars and staff all yearn to be released from social isolation, to experience authentic connection, to touch and be touched – themes that speak to our modern preoccupations, for obvious reasons.

After pairing-up at closing time, Hamilton/Bourne’s characters abandon themselves to the sometimes tender, but more often cruel, complexities of adult intimacy.  With one exception, these relationships are purely transactional, and the regulars repeatedly return to the Midnight Bell, regretful and lonely, to resume the grim chore of getting hammered.

One story concerns schizophrenic George (danced by Richard Winsor), whose obsession with actress Netta (Daisy May Kemp) drives him to despair.  A second story, taken from The Midnight Bell and Hamilton’s own life, concerns barman Bob (Paris Fitzpatrick) and his rose-tinted infatuation with prostitute Jenny (Bryony Wood).  In a third story, barmaid Ella (Bryony Harrison) pines for Bob but settles for a May–December romance with customer Mr. Eccles (Reece Causton).  Yet another story imagines an affair between two characters who never met in Hamilton’s fiction: spinster Miss Roach (Michela Meazza) of The Slaves of Solitude; and predatory cad Ernest Gorse (Glenn Graham) of the Gorse trilogy.  The most touching tale of all is the clandestine relationship – illegal in the 1930s – between new customer Frank (Andrew Monaghan) and chorus boy Albert (Liam Mower).  According to the publicity materials, there is also a sixth story.  I must have missed it.

Full disclosure: I’m not a dance buff.  I’ve seen Billy Elliot on DVD, twice.  Er … that’s it.  Still, I reckon I was in the same boat as many in the Cheltenham audience: dance-ignorant, but dance-curious, and open to having my expectations challenged or even subverted by a Matthew Bourne production.  What I hadn’t expected was to find much of the performers’ physical repertoire already familiar.  In this regard, the show was surprisingly unsurprising.
 Much of the performance involved movement and gesture, rather than conventional dance. When dancing did break out, it was sometimes tender, as in a gorgeous pas de deux between Frank and Albert; sometimes revealing, as when Eccles yanked his fiancée Ella around, exposing their incompatibility; and sometimes clichéd, as when Bob danced with his imaginary lover in the form of a pillow, and later a mop.  I assume the use of cliché was deliberate, but I’m not sure to what intended effect.
Bourne’s choreography is detailed, taut and constrained, with extremes of passion, sexual violence and self-abasement being played out on one, narrow bed.  But there were times when the bleakness of the source material seemed too constraining; times when I wanted Bourne to untether the characters and let them soar.  At least there were flashes of welcome humour, for example in a telephone box (giving new meaning to the phrase ‘hanging up’) and in the covert games of ‘footsie’ between Frank and Albert.
Lez Brotherson’s versatile set, including a brooding backdrop and flown-in neon signs, vividly evokes the smoggy sleaze of 1930s Soho and Fitzrovia.  His costume designs are a symphony in brown, accessorised with berets, trilbies and amusing gentlemen’s underwear.

Terry Davies’ excellent original score is sombre, compelling and deliberately anachronistic, in counterpoint to the period songs to which the cast lip-sync – a trope that, to my mind, brought this piece into unflattering comparison with Dennis Potter’s Pennies From Heaven.  It also momentarily created a weird effect, when Ella lip-synced to alternate verses of ‘What Is This Thing Called Love?’, sung by Hutch, who last time I checked was a bloke.
Overall,  I found the performance to be well directed, technically flawless, but lacking in emotional heft.  I had hoped to be moved – but the only movement on my side of the footlights happened ten minutes into the second half, when two punters voted with their feet.  I wasn’t tempted to follow them, but nor was I surprised by their departure.  Pearls before swine?  Perhaps.

Running time: 100 minutes (including interval)
The Midnight Bell’s run at the Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham, has ended.  The show is currently on tour.

Reviewer: Paul Sharples
Explore Gloucestershire
13 September 2021

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