Tchaikovsky with teeth: Matthew Bourne’s vamped-up Sleeping Beauty makes a lively return

The infant-Aurora puppet is a delight in Matthew Bourne's The Sleeping Beauty - Johan Persson
The infant-Aurora puppet is a delight in Matthew Bourne's The Sleeping Beauty - Johan Persson

Matthew Bourne’s love of the great Russian ballets is matched only by his fondness for getting up to mischief with them. In 2012 – following 1992’s Nutcracker! (recently, marvellously re-buffed) and 1995’s all-conquering Swan Lake – he belatedly completed his unofficial Tchaikovsky trilogy by turning his attention to the most daunting of them all, The Sleeping Beauty (first staged in 1890). And, although he revived it three years later, it has been snoozing in its own woodland glade since then.

Seeing it afresh, my qualms to some extent remain. The characters err towards the one-dimensional; the steps are on occasion outgunned by the score; and the many electric walkways, conveying weightlessness, smack of Britain’s Got Talent gimmickry and make you appreciate all the more ballet dancers’ ability to generate the same illusion armed only with pointe shoes and hard-won technique.

But these grumbles somehow seem to matter less this time round. Has relatively recent fatherhood turned me into a hopeless pushover when confronted with a baby? Possibly – and the infant-Aurora puppet is stupendously conceived and brilliantly manipulated, a 24-carat comic delight. But there’s also a collective fire and purpose to the lead performances here that draw you further than before into the radically reworked story and help elevate the action considerably closer to the heights of the music.

So, top-flight Bourne? Not quite. But an extremely lively outing? Without question. With the action rather amusingly spanning from 1890 to “yesterday”, the 21-year-old Aurora (Ashley Shaw, on livewire form) is now torn between her true love – mild-mannered gamekeeper Leo (the ever-endearing Andrew Monaghan) and the dark fairy Carabosse’s progeny (newcomer Paris Fitzpatrick, startling in the dual mother/son role). And there’s further revisionism from the outset, with the traditional Lilac Fairy now a bloke – Count Lilac (a seldom-more-charismatic Dominic North) – and a conspicuously sharp-incisored one at that.

Vampires are, in fact, everywhere, their condition allowing Bourne to have some crisp choreographic fun with the ensembles and also to keep his characters “alive” for an otherwise implausible 130-years-plus. Also satisfying is the way the piece progresses from the recognisably balletic steps and world of the opening towards a far more contemporary idiom, right up to the big climax in a very modern, sodium-lit den of iniquity. (High marks, too, for a terrific, mercurial contrubution from Bourne's regular designer, Lez Brotherston.) The result is a piece of flawed but still superior entertainment that belts along with considerably more drama and purpose than most Sleeping Beautys, and which I suggest you get your teeth into before daybreak sometime soon.

Until Jan 15, then turning nationwide until April; new-adventures.net