Review: The Midnight Bell at York Theatre Royal

It is a real treat to see Matthew Bourne’s latest production of contemporary dance and I anticipated it with excitement.  Described as ‘intoxicated tales from darkest Soho’ and inspired by the novels of Patrick Hamilton it is a multi-layered glimpse of London’s underworld of the 1930s, set in a public house named The Midnight Bell.

By Angie Millard

Soho was a seedy red light district at this time, when prostitution, strip clubs, pornography, drugs and dirty magazine shops were to be found on every street corner. Yet it was in the middle of Theatreland at a time when going to see a West End Show was the ultimate in sophistication.

The production contains a mix of characters: a prostitute, an out of work actress, a West end chorus boy, a lonely spinster, bar staff and a lothario who, together with a mix of regular customers, view the pub as their place. It is a lonely hearts club where lost love, longing and frustration play out. Popular songs of the period are used to evoke an era where dance music ruled.

The Observer calls Bourne ‘the king of dance theatre’, a title he earns in abundance. His Swan Lake with its male chorus of strong, menacing swans was ground-breaking in the world of ballet. He has the vision to find something resonant and totally surprising through his choreography and presentation. He says in The Midnight Bell that his characters are looking for love and he uses universal themes viewed through the eyes of another time.

Michela Meazze who plays a lonely spinster describes the creative process as starting from the emotional state in order to find a corresponding physical movement.

On stage, glass windows are lowered to denote the pub which is set in a landscape of roofs and chimneys. Piano/violin music is used to create an eerie soundscape which blends together with the nostalgic love songs.

It opens with a solo dancer; he is then joined by nine others who spin and turn in the late night tavern. A young bartender executes a dance in a phone box and there are deliciously funny routines on a bench between a secretly gay couple and an older man with his young fiancée. All is beautifully encompassed in the environment of the London pub. 

The second half opens in a club where Charleston morphs into Tango. We progress to a cinema and see a Fred and Ginger number then move to a Lyons corner house complete with iconic waitress. Finally, there are scenes where the love affairs reach a sad resolution; all is represented by Bourne’s effortlessly, fluid movement. Dancers are drawn together like magnets and repel each other with the same force.

This production is magnificent. We need innovation if contemporary dance is to continue to develop, and change, and Matthew Bourne has produced another master-piece.

The Midnight Bell is being performed at York Theatre Royal from 30 September to 2 October 2021. It was devised and is directed by Matthew Bourne. Music is by Terry Davies. Set and Costume is by Lez Brotherston. Lighting Design is by Paule Constable and Sound design by Paul Groothuis. The Associate Artistic Director and Choreographer is Etta Murfitt.