United Kingdom Lord of the Flies, New Adventure (Contemporary dance adaptation of the William Golding novel): The Birmingham Hippodrome, 15:5:2014 (GR).
Ralph: Dominic North
Jack: Danny Reubens
Piggy: Sam Plant
Simon: Layton Williams
Roger: Dan Wright
Maurice: Jack Hazelton
Sam: Luke Murphy
Eric: Leon Moran
Director: Matthew Bourne
Additional choreography: Scott Ambler
Music: Terry Davies
Design: Lez Brotherston
Lighting: Chris Davey
Sound: Paul Groothuis
Peter Brook adapted the William Golding iconic bestseller Lord of the Flies for the screen in 1963, while Nigel Williams and the Royal Shakepeare Company enacted a stage version in 1995. Williams used professionals whereas Brook opted entirely for drama students. For his contemporary dance reworking, Matthew Bourne combined the two – a core of eight practised dancers for the chief roles (with doublings) and an enthusiastic group of twenty-four wannabes forming the ensemble. I found it hard to differentiate between the two!
Originally developed in 2011 by New Adventures, Re-Bourne and the Ambassador Theatre Group, the joint production is currently on tour and each stop-off venue employs its own group of volunteers from around the region. Birmingham, with its reputation for dance amply displayed by their ongoing International Dance Festival, was never going to have a recruitment problem. Not that this mixing of amateurs and pros is new to the city’s art-loving public: the practice has long been the format of Birmingham Opera Company for their annual productions (their Othello in 2009 included the usually omitted ballet section of Act III, utilising a local dance group). I caught up with the show for its third outing at the Birmingham Hippodrome, the run providing a major contribution to IDFB 2014. A packed audience, no doubt swelled by the appreciative families of the volunteers, gave them a rousing reception.
Although Bourne retains the basic concept of Golding’s dystopian novel, he changes much: there is no disastrous plane crash, no dead pilot’s body, no desert island, no conch, no ‘Castle Rock’, no boy’s choir and (as far as I could see) no flies. But most of his ‘substitutions’ work! For a start, the innovative ballet director chose a deserted theatre basement into which his mixed-age group of schoolboys become isolated when the roller-shutter doors slammed tight, plunging them into darkness. The accompanying and deafening crash was just one of the impressive sounds devised by Paul Groothuis. From the outset his distant background noises, indicative of some sort of riotous kerfuffle going on outside the house, suggested that perhaps inside was a safer place to be. Like the very name of Bourne’s company, it was a new adventure for the boys; what larks might they get up to during this extended school playground break? It seemed appropriate that their first action was a regimental-type drill, befitting their blazered apparel, uniform in both step and garb. As the fun continued, it was bolstered by the imaginative West Indian style music of Terry Davies’ opening bars, a sensation reinforced by the empty oil drums scattered around the vast cellar-like floor. Lez Brotherston’s realistic design provided other vehicles for amusement too – bars on which to swing, platforms to clamber upon and wheeled linen baskets to dash about on, so much going on it was difficult to take it all in. This was much better than any old boring tour of the theatre!
But as the seriousness of their situation sunk in, they became aware that some sort of leader was required. Summoned on one of those fifty-gallon drums by Ralph (Dominic North) they democratically choose him as their leader with a show of hands, out-voting Jack (Danny Reubens) although before the poll it appeared to me that the charismatic Jack had more supporters. As the lights went down on what was their first night, all was still harmonious. The next morning we saw further character development: Piggy (Sam Plant) was the brains behind Ralph and having found a roving mike it was decreed that whoever holds it should have the floor; the sensitive side of Simon (Layton Williams) was revealed in his moving solo piece, intent upon dispelling the now apparent advent of bullying. As hunger pains set in, an exhaustive search for sustenance turned up an abundance of convenience snacks and ice cream, arrayed in the trays cinema-ushers purvey. The presence of these presupposes access to other parts of the building and that there had been no complete power failure – within Bourne’s conceptual licence? This resulted in over indulgence, queasy stomachs and the inevitable bun fight. It was a somewhat stagy scene, partially rescued by the string/xylophone accompaniment of Davies’ score, both generally descriptive yet pleasantly melodic at times. As events unfolded, a chill penetrated the bodies as well as the minds of the boys, echoed by some sinister chords from the live cello of Nick Allen. The discovery of a brazier went some way to raising body temperatures: the image of the boys stretching out their hands towards the rampant flames was a memorable one. Although unlikely to draw attention to their predicament, I thought the fire was symbolic of a cry for help, just as it was an attention-seeker in the Golding narrative. The build-up of tension created by the music and the joint choreography of Bourne and Scott Ambler had been inherently perceptible from curtain up to the interval.
As fears grew, some of the more timid took refuge in another of Brotherston’s apposite props – a couple of movable costume rails. In all the commotion the theatre’s resident tramp (the dead pilot?) was disturbed adding to the growing consternation. Attention focused on a totemic pig’s head (Golding’s ‘Lord’) mounted on a stake and worshipped by three of the dancers; but despite some fiendish drum and guitar sounds, any nightmarish element was missing to my mind. The fight scenes were also rather mixed, often raw, athletic and adrenalin-packed, but never terrifying. As the jungle noises increased in tempo and dynamics, fatalities were predictable. Simon succumbed to mob hysteria, his body removed from the stage by a roller conveyor of boys on the floor, a movement unbeknown to me, but brilliantly executed. Having seemingly been beaten senseless earlier, Piggy was fatally crushed by a falling spotlight (a variation of the Phantom of the Opera legend?) but no accident here. The showdown between Ralph and Jack was a bit of an anticlimax, handbags at ten paces. Meanwhile it seemed that outside the riot police had gotten control, the shutters could be opened and the boys freed again. Ten-year-old Percy (Tom Hammond) led everyone into the beckoning sunlight; having previously clung to his teddy bear for comfort, it was now no longer required and cast aside, symbolic of the experiences gained during the boys’ ordeal.
Re:Bourne is the educational wing of New Adventures and hopefully a Billy Elliot may emerge. Each production of Lord of the Flies belongs to its city of venue: this aspect was the key feature of the initial idea and Birmingham stacked up magnificently. The twenty-four locals were all superb. To mention only three, good luck to Nat Sweeny from Moseley, Enrique Ngbokota from the Elmhurst School of Dance and Will Cornish from Solihull.