The Car Man, review: Matthew Bourne pulls it off with this smart, sexy revival

The Car Man Richard Winsor and Ashley Shaw - Alastair Muir
The Car Man Richard Winsor and Ashley Shaw - Alastair Muir

Outside Dino’s diner and garage, in the hick Italian-American town of Harmony, there’s a sign that reads “Man wanted”. It’s a standard-issue call for hired help, presumably put up on the orders of its plodding but dictatorial proprietor. But, as far as his bored, preening pussycat of a wife Lana is concerned, there’s a missing word. “Real man wanted” is what she’d have scribbled, given the chance. Soon, much like Brad Pitt in Thelma and Louise, a bona fide beefcake, Luca, does indeed come swaggering into town. Lana is mesmerised by him, and he by her – but she is not the only one.

Such is the vividly sultry setting of The Car Man, Matthew Bourne’s unapologetically libidinous amalgam of Bizet’s Carmen (in a sharp reworking of Rodion Shchedrin’s orchestral Carmen Suite by Terry Davies) and that perennial noir favourite The Postman Always Rings Twice. Created in 2000, and revived since, it is now making its Royal Albert Hall debut. And Bourne, designer Lez Brotherston and Bourne’s entire New Adventures company are going the extra mile to make the story fly in that magnificent but unforgiving space.

Deprived of a proscenium arch, they’ve opted for a large “thrust” stage (a particularly apt term given what goes on on it) with an extended catwalk that completely bisects the lowest, Arena seating area. Lined with US-style telegraph poles, and bolstered by Duncan McLean’s projections and Chris Davey’s particularly excellent lighting, this is the Route 66-like road into town. Large screens – dusty billboards one second, facial close-ups the next – flank the stage (complete with its diner, garage and two splendid Fifties automobiles) as well as hiding the terrific, amplified orchestra. The dancers and musicians now total a considerably swelled 65, with Bourne’s crisp, foot-stomping, pelvis-gyrating choreography adroitly expanded to capitalise on the new space.

Besides those novelties, the show is impressive: absolutely crystal-clear in its storytelling, and fizzing with the intelligent irreverence that distinguishes this master of dance theatre. Carmen’s famous Habanera becomes an insanely braggadocio-laden solo (with slinky backing dancers) for Luca featuring one particular grinding of the hips so outrageous it got its own round of applause. Escamillo’s perhaps even better-known Toreador Song is now a tremendous rus in urbe ensemble that contrasts the thigh-slapping Harmony crowd with some pretentious urbanites, even pausing to hold physical theatre itself up for ridicule.

The show comes with an over-12s-only warning that’s worth heeding. Although fully clothed, Dino and Lana’s first clinch sees them apparently hell-bent on covering the entire Karma Sutra in the space of two minutes (and now soon joined by a dozen more furiously humping couples, a kind of lusted-up Greek chorus). Few punches are pulled, either, with the fight scenes or the homophobic taunting of the gentle, put-upon grease-monkey Angelo.

The Car Man Royal Albert Hall - Alastair Muir
The Car Man Royal Albert Hall - Alastair Muir

Still, it all makes for a punchy, visceral mix, sensibly leavened by plenty of humour (take the duet between two characters, unaware that they’ve both just been serviced by the same mechanic), and the cast have a field-day. Ashley Shaw proves a terrific femme fatale as Lana, Richard Winsor hunky but also nimble as Luca (a stark contrast with Alan Vincent’s suitably stolid Dino). Always skilled at evoking pathos, Dominic North impresses as Angelo, forming an enchanting partnership with the no less excellent Kate Lyons (as Lana’s sister, Rita). The corps also performs with purpose and pizzazz.

All this said, and despite everyone’s titanic efforts, the sweaty, claustrophobic intimacy of past stagings is possibly diluted in this enormous venue – in other words, how involved you feel in the action may may be particularly dependent on where you’re sitting. I suspect the arena or the stalls are the ideal place to be, all the whooping, shooting and rutting going on just feet away – but, fear not, this is a show that’s impossible not to enjoy wherever you are in the house.

The close saw something like 2,500 people rise to their feet. And, much as I loathe standing ovations, it was hard to begrudge Bourne and co this one.

Until June 19;