Review: Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty at Sadler’s Wells

Matthew Bourne reinvents Tchaikovsky’s masterwork in sublime fashion

If anyone turns up at Sadler’s Wells expecting a seasonal, slap-and-tickle Christmas pantomime version of the familiar fairy tale, this will come as quite a shock. Choreographer Matthew Bourne’s ballet is loosely based on Tchaikovsky’s 122-year-old musical masterwork – and bears little resemblance to the popular 1959 Disney movie.

Bourne’s “play without words” reinvents the myth as a much darker, Gothic tale. Fairies and evil spirits get tangled up in a mystical story of thwarted young love where, eventually, everyone lives happily ever after.

Bourne sets it in a modern time frame from 1890 to the present day. The beautiful Princess Aurora falls for Leo, the royal gamekeeper. Their romance is interrupted when she pricks her finger on a rose and is cast under a spell, falling asleep for 100 years. The similarly bewitched Leo manages to defeat the passage of time and the attempts of Count Lilac, King of the Fairies, and Carabosse, the Dark Fairy, to influence the couple’s fate.

Bourne, with his usual panache and wit, reinvents the romance as a passionate and sensuous concoction, laced with the eternal themes of good versus evil, growing up and rebirth.

The sets, lighting and special effects are all spectacular and the costumes gorgeous. The sweeping Tchaikovsky score is both familiar and enchanting.

And, of course, Bourne inspires some sublime footwork from Hannah Vassallo (Princess Aurora), Dominic North (Leo), Christopher Marney (Count Lilac), Ben Bunce (Carabosse) and the rest of the cast. Sometimes there’s even a spark of Strictly Come Dancing as well as the rigour of classical ballet.

Most Read

Surprisingly, with all the talent on display, the show-stealer was the baby Aurora – the creation of puppeteer Sarah Wright. In Act One the infant miraculously crawls across the stage, climbs curtains and animatedly joins in the action from her crib. From our seats in the circle we could have sworn she was real.

Footnote to Sadler’s Wells: Although the temperature outside was freezing, did you have to turn the air conditioning up to roasting? When will theatres learn that a cooler temperature is more likely to invigorate the performance of the cast and less likely to encourage the audience to nod off.

* Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty is at Sadler’s Wells until January 26 2013.