I read with interest remarks attributed to Sir Matthew Bourne, apparently at the Olivier Awards 2019, in which he paid tributes to his parents who took him to the theatre in his formative years, even if it was always the cheaper seats in the top tier. The exact words were: “I'm just an East End boy who had great parents who took him to the London theatre as a young man. Always in the cheapest seats at the top of the theatre, but that mattered not one bit.” In my own formative years, a friend and I were in central London one evening wanting to go to the pictures in Leicester Square. But we had mistimed ourselves and not having consulted the film listings beforehand, missed the 6pm/6.30pm-ish screenings of what we wanted to see, and with the next screenings not until 8.30pm/9pm, we turned our attention instead to the 7.30pm starts in Theatreland.
Going into the Dominion Theatre, I had no idea who Matthew Bourne was at the time, but he had a show on there called Swan Lake, and we thought it was worth a shot. I made enquiries as to what the cheapest seats were for that evening’s performance. I made my excuses and left: I wouldn’t want to pay £45 to sit in the gods in 2019 with a full-time job let alone in 2000 as a student. We plumped for Les Misérables, at the Palace Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue, where the cheapest seats at the time were about £11. Being a novice theatregoer, I hadn’t thought to ask what the running time was, and in those days ‘Les Mis’ didn’t let out until 10.45pm. And that’s where my own love of live theatre started.
I didn’t hold anything against Matthew Bourne then, and I hold nothing against him now with regards to not having been able to afford to see his show when he himself was able to sit in the cheap seats in his own student days. If a production can be profitable (and a great many aren’t) then it should go for it – it’s a simple case, for me at least, of supply and demand. And anyway, he hasn’t done too badly, as far as I can tell! Nineteen winters (to sort of quote ‘Les Mis’) later I find myself sat in the (not so) New Wimbledon Theatre, having forked out £48, albeit to sit in Row A of the Stalls, to see a touring production of Swan Lake. It’s the third production I’ve seen of it, the others being an English National Ballet production at the Royal Albert Hall, and a Royal Opera House production.
I get why it’s so popular, inasmuch as I get it in the first place. The programme has no synopsis, unlike the programmes for most ballets, mostly if not entirely because it doesn’t need one. Not that there aren’t elements of the show that are open to the viewer’s perception and interpretation, but this radical adaptation, if I may call it that, has both simplified and clarified a number of narrative points. It’s a different Swan Lake, departing from the usual female ballerinas as swans to having a lake full of male swans instead. Perhaps inevitably, there’s a slight viciousness and bravado that would have been difficult to achieve with lady swans.
My ears are fairly well accustomed to piped in music (it happens in the plays and musicals of ‘fringe’ and ‘pub’ theatre quite regularly) but there was something odd about recorded music being used here. Granted, the costs of an orchestra accompanying the cast on this touring production would have been considerable. But, at the risk of causing a proverbial volcano to erupt, I can’t help wondering what the Musicians’ Union make of being deprived of playing Tchaikovsky’s music live. But that is my only real gripe in an otherwise enthralling evening of movement and extraordinary skill, and ultimately, I can only join the queue of those in praise of this riveting rendering of a ballet classic.