Venue: Sadler’s Wells
Until August 5 2012
Devised By: Matthew Bourne, who also directs
Management: New Adventures in Association with the National Theatre
Cast: Adam Maskell, Christopher Trenfield, Richard Winsor, Madelaine Brennan, Saranne Curtin, Anjali Mehra, Daniel Collins, Alastair Postlethwaite, Neil Westmoreland, Anabel Kutay, Hannah Vassallo, Jonathan Ollivier, Daisy May Kemp, Katy Lowenhoff, Liam Mower, Jack Jones
Music: Terry Davies
Design: Les Brotherston
Seduction, jealousy and rejection are stock-in-trade themes for playwrights, but choreographer Matthew Bourne turns these into a captivating drama portrayed purely in dance. Play Without Words does what it says on the tin, yet the piece is more layered and complex than the name suggests.
Based on the iconic 60s film The Servant, it tells of upper class gent Anthony who gets himself a swish Chelsea pad and installs a manservant, Prentice, to pour his scotch and change his socks. There’s female company too, with fiancée Glenda and a housemaid, Sheila. The ménage is completed by the arrival of Speight, the checked-shirt stranger who plays a mean flugelhorn and hangs out in all the seedy dives and jazz joints.
The ensuing sexual liaisons explore all sorts of permutations – well, this is the dawn of the permissive era after all. Yet the tangled web isn’t just about physical relationships. A psychodrama unfolds as the master/servant roles reverse, with Prentice turning master to Anthony’s increasing servility.
In the absence of dialogue, choreography carries the story, and this is helped along by the way the principals are often played in duplicate or triplicate – in other words two or three dancers for each character.
In part, this is an aesthetic device to give a mirror image of the moves, but with a twist. So while one Prentice undresses Anthony, another Prentice clothes him. Yet on a deeper level, multiple performers reveal different aspects and nuances of the characters. Anthony and Sheila’s love scene takes us from coy courtship to full erotic passion, while Speight’s seduction of Glenda is far more seedy and aggressive. It doesn’t always work: somehow Prentice’s manipulation of Anthony isn’t as dark and menacing as it might be.
There are big set-piece scenes too: a glorious party that makes the most of London’s swinging hipsters and groovy cats and concludes with a witty in-joke – a game of charades. Yet even here, the tensions between the maid, the fiancée, the valet and the predatory stranger pervade the atmosphere. Tantalisingly, the multiple characters suggest that there is more than one ending on offer as the inevitable revelations about the true relationships emerge.
The ensemble cast is terrifically talented and versatile, and the period is pitch-perfect, from the vibrant musical score to the sartorial Mad Men elegance of the design. And after seeing the services on offer, I think everyone should have a manservant.
VERDICT: **** (Four Stars) Dance with lashings of sexuality and power games.