Car Man

Tuesday 16th June 2015

The Car Man

comes to Curve

Matthew Bourne’s The Car Man: Bizet’s Carmen re-imagined

16th to 20th June

Our rating: *****

Music by Terry Davies and Rodion Shchedrin after Georges Bizet
Directed and choreographed by Matthew Bourne
Sound by Paul Groothius
Designed by Lez Brotherston

The Car Man opened tonight at Curve. A dance spectacular in two acts directed by Matthew Bourne.

Subtitled ‘Bizet’s Carmen re-imagined’, this shows provided a delicious cocktail of modern dance, ballet and drama set to music based on Bizet’s opera Carmen. The two hour show, in Curve’s main theatre, was as surprising as it was thrilling.

The Car Man at Curve Photo: Chris Mann
The Car Man at Curve
Photo: Chris Mann

Set in a small town in the Mid West of the USA, the story is simple enough: a drifter called LUCA arrives in the town of Harmony (population 377 at the start of the show) and takes a job at the greasy garage/diner owned by the cruel and abusive Dino Alfano.  Luca becomes involved with Dino’s wife Lana. Luca murders Dino but puts the blame on Angelo, a guy who works at the garage; he is sent to prison for the crime.  When Angelo is raped by a guard at the prison, he kills him and escapes. Angelo returns to Harmony to seek revenge but, during a fight, Dino is shot by his wife.

Watch the trailer on YouTube

THE CARMAN by Bourne, , Choreography and Direction - Mathew Bourne, Music- Bizet, Designs - Lez Brotherston, Churchill Theatre, Bromley, London, UK, 2015, Credit - Johan Persson
THE CARMAN by Bourne, , Choreography and Direction – Mathew Bourne, Music- Bizet, Designs – Lez Brotherston, Churchill Theatre, Bromley, London, UK, 2015, Credit – Johan Persson

In directing this ‘dance thriller’ Matthew Bourne has come a long way since his iconic production in 1997 of Swan Lake, with its all-male dance cast. The Car Man provides the same lust, passion, murder and revenge as the plot of the opera by Bizet but there the similarity ends. Matthew Bourne takes us away from a cigarette factory in Spain and puts us down in America in the 1960s. The tiny mid-western town is ironically called Harmony. Tonight’s show provided more blood, sex and violence then we have seen at Curve in a long time. The show’s promo material does warn of scenes of a sexual nature and brief male nudity but not swearing – there being no dialogue or singing.

THE CARMAN by Bourne, Photo Credit - Johan Persson
THE CARMAN by Bourne, Photo Credit – Johan Persson

This is a production in which the dancers have to act and engage in moves that bordered on what we saw in Bromance. It was a piece of theatrical drama that used non-vocal acting, mime and lot of very vigorous dancing. The Car Man is an adult show. It carries a warning of scenes of murder, brutality and sexuality that are aimed at today’s sophisticated  audience of grown-ups and if it was a film I suspect it would get an 18 rating. In designing the costumes and the effects associated with the murder of Dino, Lez Brotherston has not left much to the imagination. Bear in mind that the show’s original sub-title was ‘An Auto-erotic Thriller.’ That gives a clue as to how much sexuality there is in the show. Had all this been part of Bizet’s opera (which was saucy enough) the 19th century audience would have been profoundly shocked. What we saw take place on the stage tonight stands in sharp contrast to the benign delights of the recent Curve production of The Sound of Music. Even the 2011 production of West Side Story punches well above the belt compared to tonight’s scenario.

THE CARMAN Photo:Johan Persson
Photo:Johan Persson

The pre-recorded music was based on a score by Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin to which an hour of additional music was added by Terry Davies the British composer.  Whilst we heard the familiar melodies that we all know so well from Bizet’s Carmen, the score  had moved quite a long way from the 19th century opera. Variously described as being ‘after’ or ‘based on’, the music is perhaps more of a Bizet tribute. Tonight’s scoring was more appropriate to the kind of production it was and the period in which the show was set. But, I could not help being disappointed by it. In its transfiguration from opera to show, the music brings us to certain moments of magic  where we expect it to break into song – which of course it does not. It is of course not a musical. It is at these points of heightened expectation – where the great song or aria fails to materialise – that you wished it was a musical. The Car Man is all about dancing; in settling down to watch it, you have the leave your expectations about Bizet at the door. Take your seat at Curve and expect to be entertained with a thrilling theatrical experience that succeeds on its own terms.

Most of the production is set in the garage and diner combo of Dino Alfano. When Luca, a drifter, arrives in town he gets a part-time job at the garage where mechanics service and repair cars – hence the title. The show combines Bourne’s love of movies with his passion for theatrical dance. A TV film version of it was released in 2001.

The world premier of The Car Man took place in 2000 at Plymouth’s Theatre Royal and premiered in London at The Old Vic. The production has been dubbed ‘dance noir’, its gritty realism heightened by plenty of sex and violence.

The Car Man at Curve 2015
The Car Man at Curve 2015

Matthew Bourne is an exciting choreographer. The sheet exactitude of the movements we saw tonight was exhilarating. Modern dance has moved on from the formalism of classical ballet in which the moves, routines and configurations conveyed expression and emotion in a stylised way and mimed rather than acted the emotions of a scene. Bourne’s approach to choreography retains many of the elements of classical ballet – in the way they dancers point their feet, the shape and movements of the hands and the synchronisations of the group. Today’s dance, in Western theatre, allows for much more fluidity of expression and allows a more elaborated freedom of expression. Bourne’s work had attracted a plethora of awards and he has been celebrated as one of Britain’s greatest choreographers and dance directors. He knows what dance is all about, having been a professional dancer for 14 years. His production of Swan Lake, in 1997, was showered with awards and was featured in the film Billy Elliott. Where dance is concerned, Bourne has become a legend in his own time.

The Car Man was an exhilarating experience. Dan Wright’s portrayal of garage owner Dino was highly commendable and Chris Trenfield carried the part of Luca very well. The roles of Lana (Ashley Shaw) and Angelo (Dominic North) were very ably presented. The company of mechanics gave spectacular performances and the set design by Lez Brotherston conjured up the look and feel of the period and place most successfully.

The Car Man runs at Curve from 16th to 20th June.

Tickets are available from Curve’s website

See also:

Spoken word in July

Our review of Beautiful Thing at Curve

Our review of Bromance at Curve