a funny ballet with a vampire bite

(Johan Persson)

There are two Sleeping Beauties in town this season (the other being Hex at the National Theatre) but neither are what you would call festive. Matthew Bourne, in his comeback production at Sadler’s Wells, takes Tchaikovsky’s classic fairytale ballet and turns it goth. Thunderstorms, deafening howls, scary fairies and cursed marriages. Oh, and vampires too.

The original ballet is long in melody, short in texture. Bourne, the dance’s busiest storyteller, tries to ensure that the tale of an evil spell eased by true love’s kiss doesn’t lose momentum. It’s not perfect, but it’s always entertaining and delivered with panache.

We open in the 1890s (so the 100-year heroin snooze brings us into the present, sort of). A royal couple make a deal with the dark side and get a little princess (a hyperactive puppet, who climbs up agitated curtains). Aurora is protected by some wild fairies, apparently escaped from Helena Bonham Carter’s wardrobe: tousled curls, smudged mascara and unkempt hems. Far scarier is Carabosse, the evil spirit who gave away the child but now feels neglected: Ben Brown makes her defiant and imperious.

    (Johan Persson)

(Johan Persson)

A curse is cast. Aurora comes of age during an idyllic Edwardian summer. Katrina Lyndon led the cast I saw, full of life and full of tomboyish energy: she takes off her boots and stockings at the first opportunity and moves into vigorous role-playing. In love with gamekeeper Leo (Stephen Murray), she spends her birthday waltzing among the topiary until Carabosse’s son Caradoc (Brown again) appears, bent on evil, brandishing his cheekbones as offensive weapons.

Caradoc’s duet with Aurora, elusive with tango intensity, suggests entry into a dangerous adult world. Drops an enchanted thorny rose which leads to attacks, falls and apparent death. Lilac, the fairy king (played with vigilante charisma by Dominic North) transmutes Aurora’s fate into a century’s sleep and bestows immortality on enamored Leo with the ecstatic bite of a vampire.

True Blood was a favorite vampire reference when the production premiered in 2012 – this revival comes under the mantle of the rebooted series Interview with a Vampire. It certainly isn’t a spoiler to say that Leo, waiting for the century in his pom-pom hat, delivers the adoring kiss that awakens his love, but he and Lilac must fight to get a happy ending to a vampiric masquerade ball.

Bourne’s regular creative team delivers sumptuous delights and Paule Constable’s lighting gives the drama its full intensity, bathing the stage in indigo for the fairy’s spell and crimson for the vampire dance. The cast lends it full-bodied engagement and saucy details: particularly endearing are Shoko Ito’s tormented nanny and Cameron Flynn’s chinless marvel of a suitor. But Bourne’s way of piecing the plot pieces together doesn’t seem wonderfully inevitable, and this show can’t deliver the emotional punch of his best work, lavish and ingenious ride notwithstanding.

Sadler’s Wells, until January 15; buy tickets here

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