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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Sarah Crompton

The Car Man; Like Water for Chocolate review – two narrative delights

Zizi Strallen as Lana in The Car Man.
‘Verve and commitment’: Zizi Strallen as Lana in The Car Man. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Matthew Bourne and Christopher Wheeldon are choreographers whose work owes as much to their passion for cinema and for Broadway musicals as it does to the traditions of ballet. In fact, last week, Wheeldon picked up the Tony for best choreography for the second time, for his work on MJ: The Musical (which he also directed). Bourne has also won two Tony awards (for the choreography and direction of his version of Swan Lake).

This doesn’t make them unique. George Balanchine worked on Broadway and Jerome Robbins conquered it; Kenneth MacMillan was hugely influenced by film and his final work before his death was the choreography for the 1994 revival of Carousel, which also won a Tony. But it does provide a key to understanding how they go about telling the stories they want to tell.

Bourne is a phenomenon. It sounded reckless when he announced that he planned to reshape his 2000 work The Car Man to stage in the Royal Albert Hall. It was always a vivid, sexy ballet but it felt too much like a chamber piece to extend its punch into that vast space. Yet the result is a triumph, one that fills the air with torrid passion and terrible feeling.

Lez Brotherston has provided a characteristically brilliant setting that combines the Italian-American mechanics’ shop and diner where the action takes place with huge, tattered billboards that double as screens where the characters’ intense emotions can be transmitted in closeup. One also conceals a live orchestra, playing Terry Davies’s clever extension of Rodion Shchedrin’s Carmen suite. There’s a walkway, lined with telegraph poles, pushing the action out into the auditorium.

It’s up that long catwalk that the charismatic drifter Luca saunters, responding to an advertisement for “man wanted” and encountering not only the dull Dino, but his dissatisfied wife, Lana, and a hapless male apprentice Angelo. In the story that follows, Bourne mashes up Bizet’s Carmen and both versions of The Postman Only Rings Twice, then adds his own twist (Luca has an affair with both Lana and Angelo) to bring about inevitable tragedy.

It’s a shatteringly good piece of storytelling, packed with energetic and skilful group dancing (including a pastiche of 1950s interpretive dance) and duets that convey complex relationships with absolute clarity. One of Bourne’s great gifts is to pause the action and let meaning sink in when he needs to; his pacing is refined.

The dancers seem to stretch their bodies to the extreme, every gesture alert. It’s as if they are performing on their nerve-ends, skin stripped away. Although the leads – Zizi Strallen as the sex-starved Lana, Will Bozier as lost Luca, Paris Fitzpatrick as the vulnerable Angelo, and Kayla Collymore as Lana’s gentle sister, Rita, in the performance I saw – are all excellent, what’s so impressive is the verve and commitment with which every one of the 39-strong company of dancers performs. It’s terrific.

Francesca Hayward as Tita and Marcelino Sambé as Pedro in Like Water For Chocolate.
Francesca Hayward as Tita and Marcelino Sambé as Pedro in Like Water For Chocolate. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

So is Christopher Wheeldon’s Like Water for Chocolate. This new adaptation of Laura Esquivel’s magical realist novel about enduring love, loss and food, set in Mexico over three generations, has a fluency and beauty that sweeps you with cinematic ease from scene to scene. With Bob Crowley’s colourful, inspired designs as an ever-changing backdrop, Wheeldon unfolds the action with absolute confidence and rich imagination.

What’s happening is always clear, even if he sometimes stutters slightly in his desire to be faithful to every detail of the book. Joby Talbot’s score, superbly conducted by Alondra de la Parra, who also acted as music consultant, doesn’t always help; it’s sometimes too propulsive for the dance’s good. Particularly in the headlong first act, I longed for moments when the dance could breathe and relax instead of rushing on to the next thing.

This was particularly true because the piece contains some of the loveliest, most delicate choreography Wheeldon has ever produced – exciting group dances, graceful duets, all wonderfully danced by a cast that included Francesca Hayward, Marcelino Sambé, Laura Morera and Matthew Ball, serving both character and steps with utter understanding. I walked out smiling.

Star ratings (out of five):
The Car Man
Like Water for Chocolate ★★★★

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