Matthew Bourne's The Car Man Photo Johan Persson

Matthew Bourne’s The Car Man
Photo Johan Persson

The Curve, Leicester
June 16, 2015

David Mead

At first thought it is surprising that the present tour of Matthew Bourne’s The Car Man is only its second return in fifteen years. Then again, as much of a feast of action as it is, it’s not exactly family fare with its themes of lust, violence, murder, revenge and homosexual rape.

Although the essence of Bizet’s Carmen remains, Bourne reimagines the setting and the story. Instead of the cigar factory in Seville, we have the small American mid-West town of Harmony, and specifically Dino’s Garage. Mid 1960s life here is pretty straightforward: the beefy denim-clad mechanics fix cars during the day, then have a good time with their girls in the evening. But when Luca, a hunk of a stranger arrives, the locals’ world is turned upside down. Harmony may the town’s name, but pretty soon there’s not much of it around.

The music may be based on that from Bizet’s opera (it’s actually by Terry Davies after Shchedrin’s arrangement of it) but what follows owes more to Tay Garnett’s 1946 thriller The Postman Always Rings Twice, starring John Garfield and Lana Turner, and its tale of adultery and murder. “Man Wanted” says the sign outside Dino’s. The problem is that Lana, Dino’s dissatisfied wife wants a man just as much as her husband does for his garage. Sure enough, Lana and Luca soon fall for each other, although there’s also the slight problem of Luca and hired help Angelo’s feelings for each other. It’s not long before relationships get complicated and start to unravel.

The Car Man Photo Johan Persson

The Car Man
Photo Johan Persson

While the opening tableau and arrival of Luca convey well the heat and tension of the situation, once the dance starts a lot of it is lost. In Act I, ensemble dance follows ensemble dance, but as vibrant and as easy on the eye as it is, it is all rather relentless, and with little variation in style or feel. In fact, subtlety is in short supply pretty much throughout. Those group numbers also add little to moving the story along and do rather mask the important action being played out by the main characters.

The Car Man is at its best when the stage is less crowded and the story becomes the main driver. That’s why Act II, which although without anything like as much foot-stomping, get the audience cheering dance, works much better as an all-round piece of theatre with the nitty gritty of the story, it’s emotions and rawness, laid bare for all to see.

As Luca, Chris Trenfield had great presence from the off. When he made that opening walk, Ashley Shaw’s Lana (and probably a fair few of the audience) looked him over with frisson. His mannerisms and sense of roguishness made him totally believable.

Dan Wright was solid as the male chauvinist Dino, on the whole blind to the personal goings on around him. His sense of rage when he found out about Luca’s goings on with his wife was well done.

Dominic North was excellent as the geeky, naïve Angelo who gets bullied by everyone and who takes the fall when Dino is murdered by Luca. In Act I he’s life’s loser, a bit of a misfit and not much more. His relationship with Lana’s sister, Rita (Katy Lowenhof) is not entirely convincing, although their Act I duet, initially awkward but that later blossoms with many delicate lifts and embraces, is one of the highlights of the first half.

Dominic North as Angelo Photo by Johan Persson

Dominic North as Angelo
Photo by Johan Persson

But it’s in Act II when Angelo becomes the centre of the story that North really came into his own. Jail turns him into a different character entirely. He really made you feel sorry for him, his anger and pain there for all to see, especially in a dramatic and moving solo while shackled, backed by a chorus of caged prisoners above.

The ensemble are just as good. The dancers’ physicality is excellent and their energy never flags. The Act II fight scene is as realistic as they come. Danny Reubens as “Hot” Rod particularly stood out.

A final special mention for another undoubted star: Lez Brotherston’s marvellously atmospheric and detailed set. On one side start two mid-1960s American cars. To the right is Dino’s Diner. And in the middle, Dino’s garage. Standing around are crates, loose tyres and spanners. It later transforms seamlessly into the jail and nightclub in the city.

Part film-noir, part musical theatre, part comedy, but all action. That’s The Car Man. It may misfire here and there, but climb in for the ride.

Matthew Bourne’s The Car Man continues on tour (details here), including to Sadler’s Wells from July 14 to August 9, when Marcelo Gomes of American Ballet Theatre joins the cast as Luca.