We all endeavour to carve out a place for ourselves in the world. Choreographer Matthew Bourne has found his as a dance-maker and is proving how sharply attuned he is to audiences’ tastes with Edward Scissorhands at Milton Keynes Theatre this week.
Matthew Bourne is renowned for his bold adaptations of classical ballets including Nutcracker, Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty. The clever re-writes unearth previously unexplored elements of these well-loved stories and his company, New Adventures, impressively engages audiences through innovative contemporary dance. As a dedicated balletomane, I have found Bourne’s inventive interpretations deliciously refreshing so I expected Edward Scissorhands (a work that does not exist in the classical ballet repertoire) to be similarly “cutting-edge”.
Happily, opening night was a “shear” delight. Based on Tim Burton’s 1990 fantasy film, Edward Scissorhands is the touching tale of a boy created by a bereaved father. In Bourne’s dark prologue, we learn that the late Edward was a young boy who was struck dead by lightning while playing with scissors. His grieving father becomes determined to bring his son back to life and sets to work producing an artificial being. Unfortunately, the eccentric creator is frightened to death by Halloween trick-or-treaters, leaving Edward alone and unfinished – with scissor blades for hands.
The simple – admittedly, surreal – narrative follows isolated Edward’s attempts to fit into 1950s suburban America. Bourne excels at creating characters and the production certainly delivers razor-sharp character-driven dance-drama.
Title character Edward himself is created before our very eyes in a gothic scene which has echoes of Coppélia (a ballet in which a mechanical doll seemingly comes to life); Petrushka (a ballet which follows the love triangle between a trio of dancing puppets); and Pinocchio (the fable about a wooden marionette who must prove himself worthy of becoming a real boy). Dancer Dominic North possesses an initial limpness befitting the newly assembled creation and easily charms the audience as he develops the character’s awkward posture and tentative mannerisms. He cautiously scuttles across the stage, the giant paper-cutters hanging from his arms snip-snipping as an unremitting acoustic accompaniment.
Gentle Edward is poignantly aware of how easily he can unwittingly harm those around him with his unusual appendages – and himself, judging by his own scars. His distinctiveness quite literally keeps him distanced from others as he is forced to refrain from reaching out to anyone. North beautifully communicates the character’s fear of his own uniqueness. His shock of dishevelled hair and those surprisingly animated scissor blades combine with mournful facial expressions and carefully executed movement, ensuring this vulnerable soul pierces the hearts of theatregoers.
After the bleak opening passages, the suburban world of Hope Springs – the Stepford-esque American town that Edward finds himself in – provides a dazzlingly bright pop of colour. Quaint houses are bathed in a rosy glow and the perfect lives of their inhabitants are displayed as various stereotyped families vie for our attention. The choreography is lively, larky and light. It is in these busy full-cast numbers that Bourne’s skilful characterisation is most evident, as mini vignettes play out all over the stage. Personalities are conveyed through subtle body language and stylised gaits, emphasising the power of a nuanced gesture. It is hard to know where to look at times but, with such a visual feast on offer, these routines serve up a satisfying array of entertaining moments.
Humour abounds throughout the show. Bourne’s trademark playful wit succeeds in making his dance productions accessible to everyone and Edward Scissorhands is no exception. Plenty of chuckles reverberated around the auditorium when oddball Edward turned his talents to topiary, before progressing to lopping off locks to fashion wacky hairstyles for his amused neighbours as ‘Edwardo the Barber’.
All of the parts with Edward and the Boggs family – who welcome him into their home and introduce him to the community – are wonderful. Kindly mother Peg Boggs (Etta Murfitt) is the first person to encounter Edward. During an endearing scene of copy-cat mirroring, she realises that – blades aside – he is essentially harmless and she and husband Bill (Timothy Hodges) take Edward in. Buoyant moments which show Edward being gawped at and unable to put on his own pyjamas are joyfully staged but have an undercurrent of melancholy as it is made clear just how out of place and helpless Edward really is.
Our captivating outsider experiences newfound trust and acceptance through his stay in Hope Springs – particularly after he falls for Peg’s preppy, cheerleader teenage daughter Kim (Ashley Shaw). Edward indulges in a slice of romance by crafting an elaborate ice sculpture for Kim and revels in a dream that sees the two joining hands and dancing among his perfectly pruned privet bushes. This wistful meander through the topiary garden proves a sight to behold because the ensemble dancers are costumed head-to-toe as seamlessly synchronised shrubs.
The final pas de deux between Edward and Kim is a true study in ‘hands-free’ partnering. This time, the scissors are present but Bourne’s choreography employs counter-balances, leans, back-to-back poses and imaginative lifts to negotiate them. The dancing throughout the whole production is clean, simple and always appropriate to both the characters and the narrative. However, I did feel that perhaps parts were a little too clean-cut. Dominic North and Ashley Shaw are such capable dancers that a little more uninhibited, free movement during their intimate partnering would only add to the storytelling and make the heartbreak of Edward and Kim’s tragic love all the more affecting.
Ultimately, Edward Scissorhands is a magical, riveting piece of dance theatre with awesome designs and costumes by Lez Brotherston. There is no need at all to have prior knowledge of the film as Bourne’s attention to detail communicates the narrative with ease. It is a bit of a tear-jerker though – and I don’t think I will be able to look at a pair of scissors in quite the same way ever again!
> Matthew Bourne’s Edward Scissorhands continues at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday 21st February. Chop, chop – chase those winter blues away and get booking!
This review is also featured on Total MK.