Matthew Bourne's Play Without Words

  • Theatre
  • West End
Critics' choice
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© Simon Annand

There is an extraordinary scene set on a staircase in Joseph Losey's 'The Servant' where the master (James Fox) and the eponymous servant (Dirk Bogarde) play with a ball in a psychological game illustrating the reversal of their roles. It's an almost laughably oh-so-'60s moment – yet it brilliantly manages to compress the atmosphere of sexual and social unease that makes this Pinter-scripted movie so much more than a case of style over subversion.

When the source material is already so beautifully choreographed, it's not difficult to see how it could inspire a dance visionary like Matthew Bourne to produce what many – me included – see as his best work. Originally staged at the National Theatre in 2002, it evokes Losey's film's sado-masochistic tensions through a virtuoso sequence of devices that evokes each participant's conflicted motives and splintered desires.

Lez Brotherston's deftly conceptualised set takes the movie's staircase and evolves it as the centrepiece of a design that conjures up Chelsea in the pre-Beatles '60s. The evening opens with a throbbing trumpet solo that introduces both Terry Davies's clever referential jazz score and the four main protagonists: Anthony (the master), his fiancée Glenda, Prentice the servant, and Sheila, the housemaid who kickstarts the play's sequence of dangerous liaisons.

Losey used mirrors throughout the film to catch moments that betray hidden intentions – and in the first act of the play the doubling or trebling of characters is wittily used to do the same. At one point Anthony lies horizontal as his fiancée walks over him on one part of the stage, while his mirror image stands smoking detachedly in another part.

A particularly witty sequence – starring a phallic shoe moment – shows him simultaneously being dressed and undressed with suitably homoerotic overtones by his servant.

The constant lurking presence of the sinister Speight in nightclubs or late-night Soho streets embodies the 50 shades of sexuality that both visually and emotionally animate this work. Immaculate style and choreography, meanwhile, provide a delightful counterpoint to the murky undertones. Ten years on, this remains a deserved classic.

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