United Kingdom Matthew Bourne’s The Car Man: New Adventures, Matthew Bourne (director/choreographer) Edinburgh Festival Theatre, 10.6.2015. (SRT)
The Car Man is one of New Adventures’ most popular productions. Matthew Bourne’s take on Carmen is on its national tour and, having had such good experiences with him before, I came to it with high expectations which, initially, were a little squashed. While his Swan Lake and Nutcracker had been brilliantly exciting takes on established scores, I started off thinking this reimagining rather repetitious and uninventive. The setting was new, relocating the action to a small town in the USA in the 1960s whose garage seems to provide most of the employment, but the initial numbers were fairly conventional crowd scenes, albeit with a bit more steam in the air and flesh on display.
After a while, though, I realised that trying to spot equivalents for Carmen, Don José, Micaëla et al. was missing the point. Bourne isn’t trying to retell the story of Carmen: instead it’s the atmosphere of the opera that he’s trying to tap into, all its sultry, humid sexiness. When that gets transferred across to the story of a small town and the impact of a new arrival, the impact is fairly explosive. In fact, it is part of the success of the adaptation that no one figure stands in for Carmen or Don José: instead the Car Man himself, when he arrives in town, uses his dangerously assertive sexuality to set off a bomb under the already febrile network of relations that permeate the community, with effects that are exciting and unnerving to watch.
Bourne’s greatest gift has always been as a storyteller, and he manages to turn this ballet into a suspense thriller whose every twist has the ability to surprise. Lex Brotherstone’s skeletal sets allow the action to change between interiors and exteriors very quickly, and the figures on stage are actors every bit as much as they are dancers. Bourne’s choreography remains impressive, though, thrusting and angular in the big crowd scenes, sultry and sexual in most of the duets. Only in the numbers for Rita and Angelo do you get anything approaching human warmth, and that becomes increasingly infrequent as the evening progresses. As the attention-grabbing pair at the centre of the action, Jonny Ollivier and Zizi Strallen convey all the sensuality and promiscuity that their roles demand, but I found myself much more drawn to (and impressed by) the victims of the story, danced with vulnerability and a great deal of sympathy by Liam Mower and Kate Lyons. Central to the success of the show, though, is the very inventive reimagining of Bizet’s score by Terry Davies and Rodion Shchedrin, repeatedly making the familiar seem new and using all manner of weird and wonderful orchestrations and arrangements to make the action come to life and illuminate it in the best possible way.