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Matthew Bourne's 'Highland Fling'

by Patricia Somerset

February 14, 2005 -- Churchill Theatre, Bromley

"Highland Fling" is Matthew Bourne’s re-working of “La Sylphide”. It tells the story of James, a young, newly married Glaswegian who is lured away from his wife by a strange and beautiful sylph. The first part of the ballet shows James at clubs with his drunk and pill-popping friends, but occasionally being given a glimpse of the sylph, until she becomes an obsession and he finally goes with her to join the other sylphs.

In the second act we see the sylphs in their home, not a beautiful forest but waste ground outside the city with dumped cars and rubbish. The sylphs are winged and mysterious, but also savage and mud stained. They hunt small animals and live in the dirt. They are, however, moved by the relationship between James and the sylph and for a short time all is romantic and with cute little furry animals in the background, even twee! However, this is Matthew Bourne, so before long everything changes with James cutting off his sylph’s wings to the horror of the other sylphs. Confronting his blood-stained sylph he is in despair at what he has done. The sylph dies and the other sylphs take their revenge. The final scene is James, now with the wings of a sylph, looking in through the window at the domestic comfort of his young wife and her new partner, - dressed in tartan of course.

It was in "Highland Fling" that Matthew Bourne found that he could use humour to involve an audience, and that the following tragedy would have an even greater impact. It does not have the emotional power of his "Swan Lake" which followed, but still it has that element of shock that comes from horror following so unexpectedly on from humour and happiness.

With the first scene set in the club toilets and the performance starting with the hero collapsing in a urinal, it is clear that we are somewhat removed from “La Sylphide”. The Scottish theme of the ballet is very clear; in fact Scottishness is taken to unprecedented heights! There is tartan everywhere, deer’s antlers on the wall and pictures of Scottish heroes such as Sean Connery. I had the impression that designer Lez Brotherson had enjoyed this Celtic challenge.

The first act contrasts wild dance with chaotic domesticity, jealousy and fights - a very earthly existence. Lovenskjold’s music is dramatic and sometimes melodramatic, and the choreography uses the drama rather than trying to avoid it. The dancing was dynamic and exciting, and the dancers were interesting, individual characters. James (James Leece) movingly conveyed his increasing bewilderment and fascination with the appearances of the sylph. In the first act, Kerry Biggins was a sylph with attitude!

In the second act, however, the sylph is required to go from the joy of James being with her to the misery of having her wings cut off. Biggins managed this superbly. Whilst the first act had been much more narrative in style, the second act was almost entirely danced and the dancing was glorious. The other-worldly feel of the sylphs’ surroundings was enhanced by their excellent, eerie makeup (Chris Redman) and the lighting (Paule Constable).

For me there was only one sour note in this excellent work and that was the appearance of the woman in an electric wheelchair. There was no attempt at characterisation; she was only required to come on stage dressed in awful clothes and sit in front of the television. So, presumably the humour of her appearance was meant to be that she looked strange and used a wheelchair. In the context of the many genuinely witty moments in "Highland Fling", this seemed to me to be very out of place.

Apart from that one moment, I enjoyed the evening enormously; this “romantic wee ballet” is a treat not to be missed. Its run at the Churchill Theatre finishes on Saturday 19th February and it then tours the country including Sadler’s Wells London from 1st to 5th March.

Edited by Staff.

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