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Review: Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty at Liverpool Empire ****1/2

Having delivered his Nutcracker! in 1992, and his singular Swan Lake in 1995, it took Matthew Bourne the best part of two decades to finally embrace the last part of Tchaikovsky’s trilogy of mighty ballets.

Bourne, as he explains in a programme interview, had never really warmed to Sleeping Beauty’s source story, but was finally inspired to stage it after a visit to the composer’s rural Russian retreat.

Ten years after its premiere, his supernatural reimagining of the fairy story – a vampiric Victorian “Gothic romance” – is on its third visit to the Empire, and it appears it has lost none of its magic.

In this ‘once upon a time’ fine de siècle fairytale, Aurora is the much-wanted offspring of the King and Queen, feted in her crib by a visiting phalanx of kohl-eyed fairies but cursed by a Valkyrie-style Carabosse (Ben Brown) whose assistance in the miracle conception is ignored after the baby’s arrival.

Fast forward to 1911, Carabosse is dead and forgotten and the adult – yet still adolescent - Aurora (danced with a mixture of exuberance and radiant delicacy by Cordelia Braithwaite) is preparing for her coming-of-age celebration, a genteel tea party at which she’s waltzed around the palace grounds by a succession of pre-war suitors.

But Aurora only has eyes for the youthful royal gamekeeper Leo (Stephen Murray), a slightly more rounded love interest than the traditional prince who turns up at the end of the story with a kiss to save the day. The pair’s duets are simply delightful.

Carabosse’s casts a long shadow however, in this case in the form of her avenging son Caradoc (also Brown, vampirically saturnine) who seeks to fulfil his mother’s curse.

Above and top: Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty. Photos by Johan Persson

A decade ago, Dominic North played Leo in the production’s first visit to Liverpool. In its latest incarnation he returns as a spiky Count Lilac, King of the Fairies, who looks over Aurora and makes sure her death sentence is commuted to a century-long slumber instead – a slumber that brings the story careering into hoodie-clad, neon-lit modern day.

Bourne tempers the drama of the battle between good and evil with trademark comedic touches, not least in the cast’s interaction with the baby Aurora – no plastic doll in a crib but a mischievous mobile puppet whom the exasperated palace maids, footmen and nanny (Sophia Hurdley) must try and wrangle.

The core cinematic storytelling vision is Bourne’s, but it’s realised strikingly on stage by long-time collaborator, Liverpudlian set and costume designer Lez Brotherston whose fertile imagination conjures a world of gilt pillared, curtained swagged palaces, Merchant Ivory lawns, luminous full moons and mist-wreathed forests, lit in distinctive light (good) and gloom (evil) by Paule Constable.

While it may not kick you in the gut like his Swan Lake, or tear at the heartstrings like Edward Scissorhands, there’s still much to enchant audiences, whether they’re already fans of the choreographer and his New Adventures company, or experiencing their first Bourne ballet.

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