|Play Without Words, New Adventures, Sadler’s Wells, review|
|Written by news desk - telegraph.co.ukm|
Play Without Words at Sadler's Wells remains a whirl of sex, style and cigarette smoke by which it is impossible not to be seduced, writes Mark Monahan.
When Matthew Bourne’s Play Without Words first appeared – in 2002, at the National Theatre – it was universally hailed as an irresistible storm of Sixties chic that had come from pretty much a clear blue sky.
Ten years on, it can’t of course enjoy the same novelty value, and the US telly series Mad Men has arguably stolen a little of its period thunder, too. Still, make no mistake: this adaptation of The Servant – Joseph Losey’s 1963 film about the battle between the classes and sexes – remains a perfectly focused piece of entertainment, a whirl of sex, style and cigarette smoke by which it is impossible not to be entirely seduced.
It is telling that the programme contains no synopsis. For one thing, a mere run-down of the characters – feckless toff Anthony and his pretty fiancée Glenda, vixen of a housemaid Sheila, rugged old friend Speight and embittered, scheming manservant Prentice – tells you plenty about where the whole thing is going. For another, so lucid is Bourne’s storytelling that you would have to have your fingers in your ears and be facing the wrong way not to follow the plot.
True to the title, the piece – set, too, in 1963, the year in which the Sixties properly became the Sixties – is non-verbal. And yet, although there are dance passages (in which Bourne affectionately pastiches and modernises groovy moves of the time), it is not exactly dance, either.
His central physical trick is one of emulation. Anthony, Glenda and Prentice are each played by three people, often simultaneously; Sheila, by two. Especially at the start, each character’s portrayers execute their deftly stylised moves in perfect synch, a smart device that both beefs up the action and gives it an almost hall-of-mirrors effect.
As the action progresses, however, and events spiral, this imitation increasingly splinters, so that – in one delightfully constructed, often erotically charged set-piece after another – we are instead given simultaneous depictions of the same encounter either from three different physical perspectives or else at three different stages in its unfolding. A kind of flesh-and-blood pop-modernism, this also drolly echoes the split-screen technique that filmmakers at the time were beginning to use (on which subject, hats off to Bourne for one especially marvellous little bit of Sixties special-effects mockery about which I shall say no more).
No less vital to the piece’s success are the impeccably judged, seductively louche live score by Terry Davies – part Henry Mancini, part John Barry, part Hamlet cigar ad – and Lez Brotherston’s designs, which plunge you straight into up- and down-market swingin’ London. As for the 16 dancers, they are a joy to watch, rising expertly and athletically to the demands of Bourne’s steps, and – in the case of the two Sheilas, Anabel Kutay and Hannah Vassallo – looking so sexy in their borrowed cricket sweaters that it’s almost painful to watch. Highly recommended.