Review: The Car Man at the Marlowe Theatre

Review: The Car Man at the Marlowe Theatre


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Ellesse Cook reviews The Car Man, Matthew Bourne’s re-imagining of Bizet’s Carmen, which arrived at Canterbury’s Marlowe Theatre last week.

I know very little about ballet. So, to any dance buffs out there, just know I’m coming at this from an amateur perspective. The Car Man is advertised as “Bizet’s Carmen Re-imagined”, a clever little name change to match the 1960’s setting it’s moved to. But here’s the thing; opera is not an easy medium to transfer to ballet. Even if you can’t understand it, there is a tone to how certain opera pieces are sung; transferring to ballet means that visuals have to relay these messages. And then when you add changes to the plotline, you’re only risking more confusion.

The change in storyline really threw me. Director and choreographer Matthew Bourne has said that he based the ballet more on the music of Carmen rather than the opera as a whole. So personally I take issue with describing the ballet as a “re-imagining”. Using the music is fine but there’s some mixed messages there. With this being said, I did get invested in the actual storyline. The plot centres on Lana Alfano’s (Ashley Shaw) affair with Luca (Chris Trenfield), a “drifter”, her husband Dino (Alan Vincent) finding out and the latter being murdered by the lovers, leading to all manner of consequences. Notably there’s the subplot of the man framed for the murder, Angelo (Liam Mower), who has a fling with Luca before he’s arrested.

The cast of characters are a mixed bag but the stand out is probably Ashley Shaw. The dancing from the whole cast is very strong, but its Shaw’s acting ability that shines through. Devoid of dialogue and most movement being dancing, she largely has to convey her emotion in her facial expressions. This is not an easy task, but Shaw does a great job from the aloof glances she uses to tempt Luca to the sheer distress at killing her husband. Plus, Trenfield’s rogueish mannerisms fit with Lana’s very well. Alan Vincent does a fair job of portraying Dino as this angry chauvinist; his shining moment is when he finds out about his wife’s affair; the guy does rage very well. Katy Lowenhoff (Rita, Lana’s sister) has an interesting chemistry with Liam Mower, though whether it was meant to be romantic was uncertain. Plus the general style of dancing was interesting to watch, and added a sort of roughness to the typical ballet.

The music is also well integrated to the plot. Though I’m not fond of the “reimagining” label, Bourne clearly had an original vision for the music. This ranges from slowing down a piece of music to fit the tone of a heat wave, to playing a piece on the xylophone for a wedding. The latter in particular I thought was an interesting choice. Some of the original music in Carmen is very harsh so it makes sense to lighten it up with the xylophone. However this is when I realise what rubs me the wrong way about this show.

As a whole, the production is style over substance. Some of the best parts are the visuals; seeing a bloody Dino dance with Luca in a hallucination is a brilliant idea. Just little things, like placing people round the corner from the main piece of set, gave it an interesting perspective. But the cast and plot needed to be stronger overall. Even considering ballet as a visual medium, the visuals just overshadowed everything. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the performance. Would I see it or something like it again? I’m not so sure.

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