The Midnight Bell
Theatre Royal Brighton
Tue 14 – Sat 18 September
As Sir Matthew Bourne prepares to take his brand-new show around the country, the master storyteller and maestro of dance theatre is excited about reaching a whole new audience.
“It’s going to be a really intimate experience,” the choreographer and director says of The Midnight Bell, which will be visiting many of the smaller-scale venues his previous ventures have been too big to fit into.
He promises audiences will get “a strong connection with the characters, an emotional experience, with a few laughs along the way” from the world premiere production, which will also be calling at larger-sized theatres.
“And I hope they’ll be delighted by the playfulness of it,” adds the Artistic Director of New Adventures. “I want them to be delighted not just by the story itself but also by the way we tell it.”
The stories in question are inspired by the work of the English novelist and playwright Patrick Hamilton, whose acclaimed books like Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky and Hangover Square centred around working-class London folk and were published mainly from the 1920s to the 1950s.
Set in the early 1930s, Bourne’s version brings together a bunch of characters from different novels and wonders what would happen if they all went to the same pub, namely the Midnight Bell of the title.
Even though the tale takes places some nine decades ago, Bourne feels it will chime with audiences today. The characters are desperately seeking social contact. “And that’s a theme that definitely resonates now. People are seeking to reconnect after spending so much time in lockdown.”
When we meet, fittingly, at the King’s Head Theatre Pub in Islington, Matthew adds: “It’s interesting because it’s almost like we’re all out of practice. I’ve spoken to people who feel like a fog comes over them when they’re out in public and these characters are trying to break through that sort of foggy loneliness that can take you over.”
Hamilton’s London is not a side of the era we usually see on stage. Rather than the glamorous cocktail-sipping bright young things favoured by Noel Coward, the characters are “resolutely unglamorous” everyday people. And stylistically, they’re more Peaky Blinders than Private Lives. “With the pub setting and the characters, I’d say it’s very much like Peaky Blinders with the brown and gold colours, the hats, the style that’s a great style but not glam in any way. It’s very much a working-class world.’
Just as people were desperate to get back to pubs when lockdown eased earlier this year, Bourne believes they’re also craving live shows. “And I think they’re especially excited about things that are fresh. I know I am. I think they’re dying to get back not just to a live experience but a new live experience.”
His cast are certainly eager to get back to work. Richard Winsor is returning to New Adventures after he last toured with the company in Dorian Gray in 2013, and the actor and dancer – who became a household name when he played Caleb Knight in Casualty – stars as George Harvey Bone, a melancholic who seeks solace in alcohol.
“I’ve wanted to work with Matthew again for a while,” the 39-year-old says about what lured him back. “This marks the 20th anniversary of when I first joined the company for The Car Man in 2001, so that’s another reason. And also George is such an interesting, complex character so I jumped at the chance.”
When Winsor made his Car Man debut the company was called Adventures in Motion Pictures. Launched by Bourne in 1987 and rebranded New Adventures in 2002, it has been hailed as one of the country’s most iconic, groundbreaking companies famous for telling stories with a unique theatrical twist.
Having enthralled audiences around the UK and the world with such productions as Edward Scissorhands, Play Without Words, The Red Shoes and Swan Lake, New Adventures productions have received numerous international awards including six Olivier Awards from 12 nominations. Swan Lake alone has collected more than 30 international awards and Bourne (who received a knighthood in 2016) is the most honoured British director-choreographer of all time, with Tony, Olivier and Drama Desk Awards among the many accolades he has received.
Daisy May Kemp got her New Adventures start with Swan Lake in 2005 and is relishing her latest role for the company as Netta Longdon, a wannabe actress she describes as “a bit of a nasty character”.
Daisy smiles. “I’ve worked a lot with Matthew, usually in comedic roles, so this is my first chance to delve into a character who is conniving and uses people.” And when asked what she feels makes Bourne unique, the 36-year-old says: “There’s always someone on stage with a story, no matter how big or small their role is. There’s always so much going on, with all these little subplots, and that’s just like life.”
Where Swan Lake featured a cast of around 40 people and The Car Man had around 30, The Midnight Bell features 12 performers, with Bourne saying: “My mind tends to veer towards big-scale productions and that’s what I’ve mostly been doing for many years, but I’m really excited about the intimacy this show offers. It’s a smaller cast having the chance to connect with the audience at a much closer level.”
Together they work to tell enthralling tales, with Matthew explaining: “It’s about wordless storytelling and that’s what I always think about when approaching a new project: Can I tell the story without dialogue? And that can mean many things. Dance is the primary one but it’s also about using good actors because it’s not just told through dance – it’s told through body language, mime, all sorts of things as well as the costumes, design and music.
“It’s interesting for audiences because it’s not literal and you have to make your own mind up as you’re watching it. When you read a novel you’re imagining what the people and places look like through the descriptions. This is almost the other way round. You’ve got the visuals and you’re sort of putting words into the characters’ mouths, deciding for yourself what they’re saying through all the clues you’re given.”
As always, Terry Davies’ music plays an integral role. “It should be accessible and dramatic,” the composer says, “and these stories have quite dark tones in them which are reflected in the score. There’s also humour in it and, in terms of one character in particular, a lightness. Matthew always finds humour to balance the light and the shade.”
He’s steering clear of 1930s pastiche, choosing instead to write in a contemporary style but also including lesser-known songs from the era in their original recorded form.
Like Bourne, the composer is focused on furthering the narrative. “I work in dramatic music a great deal,” says Terry, whose credits for New Adventures include The Car Man and Edward Scissorhands and who has conducted and orchestrated numerous film and TV scores. “I like telling stories and thinking about character. Matthew and I talk about that a great deal.”
And he doesn’t write with movement in mind. “Instead, I think about character and plot. The music has to be evocative and fit well with the story.”
The story, Matthew reiterates, is paramount. “It’s very important and it’s what audiences love about anything – whether it’s theatre, TV or film. It’s all about telling stories that they can follow, feel emotional about and uplifted by.”
He admits that some people might initially decide of dance ‘It’s not for me’ but New Adventures has always strived to make it engaging and accessible and has done so to great acclaim.
Bourne is humble about why the company’s work has been so revered. “But I think our focus on storytelling is an important part of it. Plus, if I take myself out of the equation and look at it from the outside, it’s a company that came out of nowhere and has become one of the country’s biggest touring theatre companies. We sort of became an institution quite quickly through the work we do, the stories we tell and the audiences we reach. It’s a British success story, working mostly with British-trained talent, and I’m really proud of that.”
Interviewed by Simon Button 2021