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Review: The Midnight Bell at Liverpool Playhouse ****1/2

While his usual Liverpool stamping ground is up the road at the Empire, four years ago Matthew Bourne brought his playful Early Adventures to the Playhouse stage.

The more compact, intimate space and the content of those modest, sunny early works was a good fit and a really rewarding experience for the audience.

So it’s great to see Bourne back at Williamson Square – albeit with a much darker dance offering this time.

The Midnight Bell, inspired by Patrick Hamilton’s inter-war series of novels, is a riveting noirish plunge into the nocturnal lives, passions, pleasures and pain of a disparate collection of lonely singles – Matthew Bourne’s Lonely Hearts Club if you will.

These are characters living life on the margins and who emerge from their bedsit solitude to search for companionship and connection, either in the eponymous tavern or in the frenetic, desperate gaiety of a Soho dance hall.

The tone is set in the opening scene where Paris Fitzpatrick’s beatific waiter Bob, desperately in love, launches into a lithe and graceful, Astaire-like solo to Al Bowlly’s A Man and His Dreams…only to be shaken from his reverie into shabby reality by his alarm clock.

The reality is the object of Bob’s infatuation (Bryony Wood’s Jenny) will only return affection for money.

Paris Fitzpatrick (Bob) and Bryony Wood (Jenny) in The Midnight Bell. Photos by Johan Persson

Elsewhere the desperate search for intimacy drives Michela Meazza’s lonely spinster, all brittle expression and Marcel-wave, into the arms of Glenn Graham’s smooth-talking cad (he of the Clark Gable moustache and Prince of Wales check), and lovelorn barmaid Ella (Bryony Harrison) into the company of a solicitous older customer (Reece Causton).

It’s a world where the tender and touching can turn suddenly brutal however – in the compelling partnership of Liam Mower and Andrew Monaghan whose characters snatch stolen moments of forbidden love, and in the despairing pursuit of Daisy May Kemp’s boho actress by Richard Winsor’s loner schizophrenic.

Liverpool-born Lez Brotherston (who started his stellar career right here in the Playhouse Youth Theatre) has created an evocative, shadowy world of dark palettes for these characters to inhabit – a palette amplified by Paule Constable’s subdued lighting.

Liam Mower and Andrew Monaghan. Photo by Johan Persson

In the midst of the dimly illuminated suspended window frames and practically blacked out open spaces the only beacons of light are The Midnight Bell itself, the neon signs of cheap lodgings and the top of a Giles Gilbert Scott phone booth – a red beacon that speaks of possible connection with other humans.

Terry Davies’s insistent – at times troubling – score is intertwined with bursts of songs from the era, by Cole Porter, Hoagy Carmichael and the Gershwins, ‘performed’ lip-synch style by the dancers which, perhaps unexpectedly, adds an extra emotional layer to proceedings.

Bourne famously injects flashes of humour into his theatrical drama, and perhaps that’s what’s just lacking a little here. There may be no happy endings in Hamilton’s world, but it would still benefit from a few moments of light relief among the heady oppressiveness.


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