Standing for a change…

Matthew Bourne’s The Car Man, Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury

Photo: Johan Persson

I don’t think of myself as a dance fan. I’ve seen some stuff, ranging from classical ballet to the Rambert, and I’ve generally enjoyed it, but I’ve never really got beyond that. So when I saw Matthew Bourne’s The Car Man in the latest Marlowe Theatre brochure I thought, ‘Hmm, that’s supposed to be good. Looks interesting,’ and promptly turned the page.

Since then, however, I have actually started working at the Marlowe Theatre, where some of my colleagues have an almost cult-like devotion to Matthew Bourne’s work. “I could watch it all day,” says one, “Just love it,” adds another, wide-eyed with devotion. After a couple of days of this, I was persuaded to see what all the fuss was about. And, I admit it, I’m converted.

First, a little background. For anyone who has been hiding under a cultural rock for several years, Matthew Bourne is the choreographer and director who famously created an all-male Swan Lake (featured at the end of the film Billy Elliot). The Car Man is another one of his works – set to music from Bizet’s Carmen, but with a plot based on James M. Cain’s classic thriller The Postman Always Rings Twice.

Photo by Johan Persson

As anyone who knows that story will immediately have realised, this is a long way from your average classical ballet. There are no tutus, no pointe shoes, and no tights. Instead, we’re in a small town in the American mid-west in the 1950’s, where a drifter called Luca (played – or should that be danced – the night I saw it by the brilliant Christopher Trenfield) arrives and takes a job as a mechanic at the local garage. If you don’t know the rest of the plot, look it up, or go along and be surprised. Suffice to say, it does not end well.

The thing this production made me realise about dance is that, if it’s done well (and trust me, in this production it is done very well), it has more power to convey raw, visceral emotion than any other form of theatre. If you’re not a regular dance viewer, the ‘acting’ parts of classical ballet can feel like face-pulling, but there’s none of that here – this company can really act as well as dance.

This is also one of the sexiest productions you will probably ever see. It is very definitely not suitable for children. The reviews drip with words like ‘lust’ and ‘raunchy’ and they are very well deserved. There is even (male) nudity. As a feminist sidebar, can I just say how nice it is to encounter something on which the men get their kit off, but the women don’t? In a society which seems to expect female flesh to be on display but is still shocked by male nudity, this is very refreshing. I am also bound to add that a group of ladies of what I shall call ‘a certain age’ near me, appeared to get no end of enjoyment from this particular aspect of the production…

At the end of the performance, the audience were on their feet. In all the times I’ve been to the theatre, this is the first time I have ever been part of a standing ovation – I think this tells you something about the sheer emotional power of this production. The dancers deserved every last clap. As another sidebar, it’s nice we get enough chance to show the performers our appreciation – much better than the RSC’s usual quick shuffle on and then off again.

The Car Man is touring the UK, before a run at Saddlers Wells in London. I am seriously considering booking tickets for the London run. Whether you are a dance fan or not, or even if you think you hate dance, go and see this. Just go.


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