The Midnight Bell: Love & Lust in Soho

Thursday 30th September 2021 at York Theatre Royal.

Matthew Bourne’s The Midnight Bell, based on the novels of Patrick Hamilton, takes us to 1930’s Soho. As liquor flows and glasses clink in the popular local tavern, lives are colliding and intertwining as time whispers onwards. Locals rub shoulders with prostitute, actor, spinster and cad alike. All are seeking connection; some seem to seek the promise of love while others are simply looking to scratch an itch. But of course, a fair few are incapable of the connection they seek, and others still find themselves dancing with cruel fate when it comes to love and lust.

Amidst the bustle of daily life and the carnal urges simmering beneath tight collars and respectable hemlines, various duos form and depart the scene. One sympathetic pairing has a layered tale: an overzealous suitor and a woman seemingly beholden to learned behaviours. The balance of humour and quiet advocacy for independence as they navigate an awkward attempt to follow the traditional trajectory is spot on.

But two characters in particular really steal the limelight. Their story of forbidden love brings a sympathetic eye to the plight of gay men in a time which attached alarm bells to any tentative amorous contact. And suddenly dance seems to be the most powerful and moving of forms for such a story. Watching intertwined limbs and furtive glances over intertwined shoulders transform into cold separation each time detection is feared becomes increasingly powerful as we watch their affair take shape against the odds. And the importance of that kind of representation in a high profile show can’t be underestimated.

True to reputation, Bourne (and Etta Murfitt)’s choreography is spellbinding, and the assembled cast are – even to a novice eye like mine – on incredibly fine form. The movement is stylish and sinuous and very much alive in spirit as lovers peel away to their dark corners of the night. But while the sensuality of characters remains central, there’s also comedy and a real sense of fun to interim sequences. Rousing music from Terry Davies and tinny recordings of transporting songs like “What is This Thing Called Love” and Al Bowlly’s crooning of “A Man and His Dream” also bring a heavy sense of affectionate nostalgia to the piece. There’s an awful lot of charm here.

And as if the beauty of the company isn’t enough, Lez Brotherston takes us to a time and place of gorgeous aesthetics through costume and set design. Stylish tailoring in the vein of iconic 1930’s trends houses unrestricted inner desires. Suspended windows hovering over light London fog, gently lit by time-stamped street lighting bring Soho invitingly to life. Combined, such influences create a lasting impression of suggestive twinkling dusk, with all thrilling possibilities intact. Paule Constable’s lighting design is also note perfect, from a subtle, lingering presence to bold visuals which completely transform the space.

There are some stunning sights to see here, and it won’t leave any lovers of spectacle disappointed. For me, a relative newbie to the scene, dance theatre is all about gorgeous visuals and blissful escapism, and that’s exactly what The Midnight Bell delivers.

The Midnight Bell plays York Theatre Royal until October 2nd 2021 and you can find tickets here.

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