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Review: Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake at Liverpool Empire *****

There are two things that are hard to believe about Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake.

One is that next year this modern classic is a quarter-of-century old. And the second is that there were ever some naysayers who couldn’t envisage – or wouldn’t countenance – male swans at all.

Of course, hindsight is a wonderful thing, but then so is Bourne’s Swan Lake – with this latest visit from his New Adventures company the third time the production has toured to the Empire.

Swan Lake was actually Bourne’s first show at the Lime Street theatre, back in 2010, and he’s returned to packed houses every season since with productions that are as much theatrical spectacle as ballet.

That spectacle is partly down to sublime and witty choreography, and partly due to Bourne’s long-time collaborator, Liverpool-born designer Lez Brotherston who brought his strong and singular vision to Swan Lake back in 1995 and has done the same to pretty much every subsequent show.

Swan Lake remains the benchmark however, and it’s as clever and as heart-breaking as ever – laugh-out-loud funny and deeply moving, visually exquisite and emotionally dark and troubling.

New Adventures regular Liam Mower proves a lithe and graceful Prince, a slight young man cloistered in a gilded cage, surrounded by fawning acolytes but starved of affection by his stiffly regal-yet-voraciously predatory mother the Queen.

His several sinuous pas de deux with Max Westwell (on Swan duties on opening night) are mesmerising, particularly in the second half when Westwell swaggers in to a royal ball as the beguiling and predatory dark Stranger and the pair embark on a dance that is both savage and tender.

Westwell also makes for a solidly muscular Swan at the head of a corps of 14 feral, feather-legged creatures (the dancers all sweat-sheened bare torsos and Jarhead buzz cuts) who hiss and preen and move in powerfully hypnotic fashion.

Meanwhile there’s a very enjoyable performance from Freya Field as the gauche and entirely unsuitable royal girlfriend, embodying all those audience-from-hell attributes (the commenting, the loud sweet eating, the mobile phone going off – something the Swan Lake of 1995 wouldn’t have had to deal with) as she gamely sits through a deliberately hideous traditional ballet.

Bourne’s work was audacious and inspired when it opened at Sadler’s Wells in the 1990s, and it remains just as exciting in 2019.

And how heartening to look around the Empire and see not just ballet-mad girls watching with rapt attention, but also plenty of boys too.

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