During the four years in which Sergei Prokofiev was writing the music for Cinderella, the world was engaged in a war of industrial-scale brutality. As half of Europe fell to Nazi occupation, Britain suffered bombing raids and Russia battled against invading German forces, Prokofiev’s fairytale score inevitably became infused with the violence of the time. And it’s typical of Matthew Bourne’s peculiar storytelling genius that when he choreographed a show to this music in 1997 he went straight to the heart of the darkness, relocating the plot to the London blitz and underpinning its magic with the threat of apocalypse.
It’s been seven years since this production was last seen on the UK stage, and I’d forgotten how smart Bourne and his creative team were in evoking the incendiary trauma of war. It’s present in the music, with the sounds of exploding shells and the crump of anti-aircraft fire spliced into the pre-recorded score. It’s everywhere in Lez Brotherston’s superb period design, which gives us shattered buildings, scouring searchlights and also, in one astonishing set-piece, a bombing raid that appears to reduce the stage to rubble and flames.
As Bourne unfolds his narrative, every detail of the story feels rooted in history, from the recasting of the prince as a glamorous but traumatised RAF pilot, to the ballroom scene at the Café de Paris – the famously glittering refuge of Mayfair socialites that was destroyed by the Luftwaffe in 1941. Yet the move from fairytale to wartime reality never feels predictable. Cinderella’s monstrous step family become a comic narrative in themselves. The wicked stepmother, Sybil, is a damaged, disappointed lush of a woman who, as played by the marvellous Michela Meazza, appears so brittle she might break. The two Stepsisters are spiteful, petty and vain – competitively engrossed with the spivs and officers who parade through the family house. There’s also an entertaining gaggle of Stepbrothers, one of them a nervously romantic queer, another a sweaty-palmed pervert, perpetually trying to grope under the skirt of the unfortunate Cinders.
These characters get to develop and grow through the story, and they’re also expertly woven into the sections of pure dance. Over the years, Bourne has introduced more elaborate choreography, and his cast now includes more technically refined dancers, yet the balance between steps and drama is still beautifully maintained. During one classic moment in the ballroom scene, the dancers all turn to look at the elegant stairway, anticipating the arrival of more glamorous guests but instead are confronted by the sight of a tipsy Private, still fumbling with his fly buttons, having nipped out for a pee. Bourne’s finest character creation, though, is the mysterious male figure who takes on the function of Cinderella’s fairy godmother but also hovers over this wartime stage as the Angel of Death. Dressed in a celestial silver suit, he breathes a different air from the others – his classically expansive movements modulated into a language of flight by airy spiralling jumps and arms that hover and fold like wings.
It’s in this drab setting that Bourne places the work’s central romantic duet. Sweet, artless and very human, with both the lovers in their 1940s underwear, the moment is perfectly pitched to a wartime plot in which love can never be more than a fleeting, fragile blessing. Certainly this couple almost don’t make it. After a nearby bomb shatters their night together, Cinderella is carried off on a stretcher and a traumatised Harry is left to struggle through the dark sleazy streets of London in search of her. And even though they’re finally allowed their happy ending, it takes place on a platform at Paddington station amid couples who, in some cases, are enduring tearful farewells.
Clever, clever Bourne. He sprinkles his stage with the stardust of fairytale romance, but he gives his story a proper tear-jerking heft by reminding us that darkness always surrounds the stars.
• At Sadler’s Wells, London, until 27 January.