Review: Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake at Milton Keynes Theatre

The company in Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake
The company in Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake
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Swan Lake is the world’s best-loved ballet and Matthew Bourne’s version of it caused massive controversy when it was first performed 18 years ago, mainly because it replaces the iconic female ballet dancers in tutus with a flock of male swans.

And I must admit to being very sceptical about seeing Tchaikovsky’s wonderful score given a modern classic twist with the central character of the Prince falling in love with the swan, who also plays the handsome stranger.

Yet any preconceptions were swept away in the Prologue, where an angelic swan menacingly - or is it protectively? -appears above the Prince’s bed. I was hooked.

Contemporary dance theatre rather than ballet, in Bourne’s brilliant choreography, Act I focuses on the Prince, who is danced so gracefully and beautifully by Liam Mower, and his distant relationship with his cold mother, the Queen, elegantly performed by Madelaine Brennan.

Amid opulent sets and glorious costumes, the action moves from the stilted confines of the royal palace to an opera house as the Prince take an unsuitable girlfriend, Carrie Johnson, with him. She plays the role with excellent comic timing and facial expressions when her mobile phone goes off at a night at the opera, and also dances equally perfectly.

There’s an incredible scene in a seedy club called Swank where the ensemble, who double up so brilliantly in a number of roles, twist and jive to Tchaikovsky’s score with incredible timing. There are even a few samba rolls thrown in for good measure.

The Prince enters the nightclub after a fall out with The Girlfriend and - unrecognised as royalty - ends up battered and bruised on a street outside by the end of Act I.

It’s only at the start of Act 2 - and by then the anticipation is almost unbearable - that the flock of swans dances on to the stage. With their arms depicting the flight of the swans and the sound of their bare feet mimicking the royal birds’ landing, they are simply magnificent and it’s hard to ever imagine a Swan Lake danced any other way. Their tutus are replaced by feathered bottoms and the way they move their bodies is entrancing and incredibly erotic.

The flock is led by the main swan, danced on the night I was in the audience by Chris Trenfield. He is utterly mesmerising and his stage presence is incredible. I literally could not take my eyes off him throughout this scene and every other he was in.

He captures the majesty of the swan perfectly and then appears in Act 3 as a stranger at the royal ball, dancing with a string of beautiful women before the Prince’s disbelieving eyes. How he manages to move so gracefully in his tight wet look leather trousers is beyond me. But the stranger’s piece de resistance and ultimate betrayal comes when he dances with none other than the Queen herself, continuing what looks like an ongoing love affair.

Beside himself, the Prince’s actions lead to a series of tragic events and you know this version of Swan Lake is - as ever - not going to have a happy ending.

What I didn’t expect though was that the sheer beauty and power of the dancing between Mower and Trenfield would reduce me to tears by the end. That a piece of theatre could do that is wonderful and it is no exaggeration to say you could literally hear a pin drop by the time the final curtain fell and the hugely deserved standing ovation and cheers rippled through the appreciative audience.

Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake is one of the best things I have ever had the good fortune to watch in a theatre. It’s a fantastic feast for the eyes and ears, but best of all, for the heart and soul. I don’t think I could ever watch the original version with tights and tutus ever again.

Swan Lake will be performed at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday, February 1.