Theatre Review: Sleeping Beauty, Empire Theatre, Liverpool

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Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty

Written By: Mark Armstrong

Format: Ballet
Genre: Drama
Date: February 16 2016
Location: Liverpool Empire Theatre

Originally written several years ago by Matthew Bourne, and having been performed at the Liverpool Empire in 2013, Sleeping Beauty has returned to the home city of the Liver Bird. For those unfamiliar with the work of Bourne, this is a retelling of the classic children’s fairy-tale in the form of ballet, as well as some unexpected twists and turns.

Sleeping Beauty tells the story of a young Princess, Aurora (who is initially portrayed by a baby doll puppet, whose actions are humorously realistic, and is then played later on by Ashley Shaw), who is handed a curse early in life by the wicked Carabosse (Tom Clark). Come her 16th birthday, Carabosse is dead but her son Caradoc (also played by Tom Clark) still plots evil retribution, and so that is the day when Aurora falls victim to the curse.

In the meantime, however, she has fallen in love with the royal palace gamekeeper Leo (Chris Trenfield), against the wishes of family and friends. After the curse takes effect, which puts Aurora to sleep for 100 years, it seems that Leo has lost his true love, until an unexpected vampiric twist allows him to be on hand when Aurora wakes up. There are further problems at that time, however, which makes Leo’s struggle to finally live happily ever after with Aurora an even harder task.

This is very different from your typical fairy-tale presentation. The timeline begins in 1890 and concludes in the modern age, which provides old-fashioned and modern takes on how times have changed during Aurora’s development and her eventual awakening. The use of Tchaikovsky’s music throughout the show provides a constant soundtrack of music that is soothing yet dramatic, and perfectly matches the on-stage developments.

But it is the ballet which makes this unique; with the exception of some projector text prior to each “era” of the story, as well as explaining the finale at the very end, the entire show is told solely through dance. Even the pivotal points of the plot are handled through dance, making this an unusual production, and in actuality a very difficult manner in which to tell the occasionally complicated story – but the show does so admirably. Even those unfamiliar with Sleeping Beauty will recognise what is going on, and the ballet never becomes a distraction, and serves as a fresh take on an often-told tale. The dance manoeuvers themselves are at times dramatic, and occasionally stunning. Because of the constant emphasis on dance, it is hard to pick out star performers, although Chris Trenfield, Ashley Shaw and Tom Clark do a great job in their roles, and tell their stories in a uniquely entertaining fashion. Facial expressions are key in a show of this nature, and all involved are tremendous at emphasising the gravity of what has happened solely through their facials.

There are several elements within the content of this production. There is dance, of course, but there is humour (mainly with the baby puppet, which is a real highlight of the show), there is drama (the curse scenes), there is emotion (the reactions to Aurora being cursed) and even some mild horror when Leo is “assisted” as he ponders how to save Aurora in the future, and in the closing scenes which take us inside the evil layer of Caradoc. It’s a show that will keep one’s attention, telling a simple story through multiple layers and creating an air of unpredictability, despite this being a common tale, which is definitely a good thing.

Ballet fans will obviously have the most appreciation for Matthew Bourne’s presentation of Sleeping Beauty, but even those who have never seen ballet before should give this a viewing; you will have a new-found respect for dance and the ability to tell a story solely through dance after watching this show.

Overall Rating: 7.5/10 – Good