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Matthew Bourne on The Car Man - at the Theatre Royal this week

Dance innovator Matthew Bourne talks to David Whetstone as The Car Man parks at the Theatre Royal

Hugo Glendinning Matthew Bourne, choreographer and artistic director of New Adventures dance company
Matthew Bourne, choreographer and artistic director of New Adventures dance company

If one man can be credited with taking dance into the mainstream, it’s Matthew Bourne – one-time teenage autograph hunter and BBC filing clerk.

After taking up formal dance studies relatively late, he set up a dance company called Adventures in Motion Pictures, made headlines in 1995 with a radical version of Swan Lake (a corps of male swans, one of whom appears in the final frame of Billy Elliot) and the rest is history.

Bourne is now one of very few choreographers whose name alone can shift tickets at a venue not solely dedicated to dance.

With his current company – New Adventures arrived in 2002 – he has produced a string of hits and built up a loyal audience around the world.

The Theatre Royal has been a regular stopping off point and tonight sees the return of The Car Man, a sinuously sexy show with a Carmen-inspired score and a steamy story of crime, passion and revenge.

The production came to the Newcastle theatre on its premiere tour in 2000 and returned in 2007. As Bourne says: “It has been away for quite a long time and hasn’t actually been seen very often.

“I think The Car Man is one of those shows that has such great characters and a different kind of story-telling. It is very challenging for the dancers and virtually everyone who is in it this time has never been in it before – so it’s a chance for them to try a different way of performing.

“They were all desperate to have a go.”

Bourne fans will be interested to know that one former star of The Car Man does return.

Bill Cooper A scene from The Car Man
A scene from The Car Man

Muscular builder’s son Alan Vincent, a New Adventures stalwart, previously danced the part of the rugged drifter who stops at a rural Californian diner – the atmospheric setting of the piece – and falls in love with the beautiful young woman who runs the dust-blown joint.

Locked in a loveless marriage to an older man, she falls for the stranger and a dastardly plot is hatched. Vincent, who once told me how he did shifts on building sites between dance jobs, returns as the husband, Nick.

Matthew Bourne says his young dancers quite liked the “raunchy” aspect of The Car Man.

“It is a piece which is very raw in its emotions and it has a particular kind of physicality. The dancers love it – and audiences, too – because it’s a piece you can get really emotionally involved in.”

Bourne remembers that it got a mixed reception when it was first performed.

Checking in our archives I find that our review from 2000 concludes: “The story is told with enormous vigour and variety. Judging by the empty first night seats, there are likely to be tickets available. Buy them.”

The choreographer, more established now than then, says philosophically: “People tend to want you to do when you’ve just done. I find that a lot.

“People are often uncomfortable with something they’re not expecting. But it’s funny that a lot of people who didn’t especially like it eight years ago are now talking about The Car Man as if it’s some kind of classic coming back.”

Many wouldn’t take issue with that description. The Car Man is certainly not an abstract contemporary dance piece.

“It’s a thriller,” says Bourne, whose interest in film is reflected in the name of his first dance company.

“I remember I’d been watching a series of film noir from the 1940s and films by the likes of (Federico) Fellini and (Luchino) Visconti.

“I mixed all that together to create this Italian-American noir-ish world that you see in The Car Man.”

He had been particularly inspired by The Postman Always Rings Twice, a 1946 film starring Lana Turner as a beautiful married woman whose affair with a drifter has disastrous consequences.

As for the music, this is not Carmen dropped into a different setting, despite the pun on the name.

“It is a mixture of music from Carmen but re-ordered,” says Bourne.

“Some purists didn’t like that. Having worked previously with ballet scores, I suppose they weren’t expecting it. But audiences loved it and we picked up a lot of fans along the way.”

What we actually have here is a blend of Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin’s Carmen Suite, a 45-minute piece from 1967 based on Bizet’s opera, and additional music by composer Terry Davies to stretch it to a full-length ballet score.

Along with Alan Vincent as Dino, the current New Adventures cast also includes Liam Mower, now aged 22, who first gained attention as one of the inaugural Billy Elliots in the West End stage show.

As for New Adventures’ next adventure, Matthew Bourne says: “There will be a new production in the second half of next year.

“We have started on it and I can’t tell you any more than that, only to say it will resonate with ballet fans but it is based on a film.

“We’re doing Sleeping Beauty again first.”

  • The Car Man is at Newcastle Theatre Royal from tonight until Saturday, May 9. Buy online at www.theatreroyal.co.uk. or tel. 0844 8112121

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