REVIEW: Matthew Bourne’s The Car Man, at Theatre Royal Newcastle, until Saturday, May 9

Picture by Johan Persson
Picture by Johan Persson

Surely messing around with the classics is so risky that you can’t always get it right? Surely lightning doesn’t strike twice?

These thoughts crossed my mind as I went in to what was my second experience of choreographer Matthew Bourne and his New Adventures dance company at Newcastle’s Theatre Royal last night.

Picture by Johan Persson

Picture by Johan Persson

My first set the bar very high – the now legendary Swan Lake in which the gender roles are flipped and the swans played by a menacing corps de ballet of male dancers, which was truly one of the best performances I have seen in a theatre.

The Car Man not only takes on a staple of the opera canon – Bizet’s Carmen – but one which has been adapted plenty of times before. A step too far perhaps?

It’s like when a band releases a cracking debut album, but you fear the rushed follow-up will be either too similar or too different – sophomore slump, as the Americans have it. Likewise films and the curse of the sequel; The Godfather Part Two perhaps being the honourable exception.

However, I should not have worried or doubted Mr Bourne’s judgement as The Car Man was different, yes, but a triumph – a heady mix of passion, dance, music and action.

Picture by Johan Persson

Picture by Johan Persson

The familiar 19th-century Spanish cigarette factory has become a greasy garage-diner in 1960s America where the daily lives of a small-town population are shattered by the arrival of a handsome stranger. The new setting is clever in that the typically masculine roles of soldiers and a bullfighter have been replaced by the mechanics, although the unexpected relationship between Angelo and Luca offers an additional comment on ideas of masculinity.

The setting does mean that the story has been changed to some extent, but this production respects the spirit of Carmen – incidentally the only opera I have seen live – and highlights the universality of the key themes of the original libretto.

The music has been rearranged, cleverly by Terry Davies to include more modern and industrial sounds at times, but with some of the melodies and arias from Carmen among the most recognisable tunes in all of music, it hasn’t been needlessly messed around with. There’s still the opportunity for tongue-in-cheek moments though – for example, the prelude to act one played at one point on what sounds like a vibraphone.

Something else you may have missed if you were watching the original performances in 19th-century France is the raunchy and steamy action of the first half – another example of Bourne and his company pushing at the boundaries of ballet.

During the initial 40 minutes or so, it really felt as though the cast were having fun with what they were doing. It is shot through with humour and an array of aahs and titters met the brief moment of full frontal male nudity early on.

However, far from being a show solely about sex, dreams and desires, the American dream quickly turns into a nightmare with murder, betrayal, wrongful imprisonment and sexual violence.

The second half is much darker, more plot-driven and quite brutal at times. Already a ballet based on an opera, there’s also a nice nod to Shakespeare in a scene reminiscent of the appearance of Banquo’s ghost in Macbeth.

The dancing and choreography, as you would expect, are immaculate. There are some very clever moments and the style is completely different to Swan Lake, which, despite its revolutionary changes, is still rooted in classicism. This is different, not least because the men are dancing in jeans and sneakers rather than leotards.

For this reason, and also the emphasis on plot and action, The Car Man perhaps offers a good way in for anyone who has never seen dance or ballet, or perhaps thinks they won’t like it. Equally, as a dance fan, Angelo’s (Liam Mower) solo in the jailhouse with his hands bound was breathtaking.

The Car Man was first seen in 2000, winning a number of awards, and this revival marks the first time the production has been staged in eight years. For me, there was nothing that quite reached the heady heights and raw power of the finale of Swan Lake, but as anyone who has seen that will tell you, not a lot does, and there is still plenty to be thankful for that The Car Man is back on the stage.

The Car Man is at Newcastle Theatre Royal until Saturday, May 9. Tickets are available from £16.50 (pay less online) and can be purchased from the Theatre Royal box office on 08448 11 21 21 or select your own seat and book online at