Matthew Bourne’s muscular and sexually charged The Car Man arrives at Sadler’s Wells for a welcome summer season (to 5/8/07). I’ve long been an admirer of Bourne’s dance works, from his gay Swan Lake, and the vibrant jazz scored The Play Without Words to his striking West End choreography for My Fair Lady, but I’d not seen The Car Man before, which was premiered in 2000. A re-imagining of Bizet’s opera Carman, the music has been re-orchestrated and uses only string and percussion, striped of the singing, and is beautifully played here by a small orchestra. Set amongst the Italian American community in small town America sometime in the 1950’s, the action has Luca, a drifter, fall in love (or lust) with a married woman and a young man, with terrible consequences. Long time Bourne collaborator and designer Lez Brotherston’s set wonderfully evokes a small town garage and diner, with classic American style.
I saw James Leech perform the central and magnetic role of Luca, he and the rest of the male corps as muscular grease monkeys did a wonderful job of embodying masculine sexuality (of all shades), with Luca as an understandably attractive figure. The other main player, Lana, is beautifully played by Michela Mezza, with Luca’s other lover, Angelo, the boyish yet muscular Sam Archer. The rest of the female dancers are mostly attractive adornments to their male counterparts; this work seems male centred, as with much of Bourne’s work and general aesthetic (and certainly The Car Man is more homoerotic than heteroerotic). The wit and vigour of the show is supplanted by pathos and despair towards the end (particularly Angelo’s desperation to see Luca), and the tragedy, as with Bizet’s original, is inevitable.
Despite the dark ending, I came away from the production with a smile, with the imaginative choreography, excellent dancing and beautiful visuals combining to make an excellent piece of dance theatre that is comprehensible and enthralling.