≡ Menu

REVIEW Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake




swan lake logo

MATTHEW BOURNE’S multi award-winning hit SWAN LAKE is playing The Bristol Hippodrome from the 20th – 24th May 2014

Premiering at Sadler’s Wells in 1995, this modern re-interpretation of Swan Lake turned tradition upside down. Matthew Bourne blends dance, humour and spectacle with extravagant, award-winning designs by Lez Brotherston, to create a provocative and powerful Swan Lake. 

If you come to the theatre expecting to be enchanted by the elegance of female swan maidens, you will soon be disabused, although it doesn’t follow that you should be disappointed. Now firmly crowned as a modern-day classic, this iconic production is perhaps best-known for replacing the traditional female corps de ballet with a menacing male ensemble. 

And you’d be forgiven if you were expecting Swan Lake to take the form of a traditional ballet – I certainly was! Matthew Bourne says it “worries” him when he hears this production referred to as “ballet” as the only appearance of a pointe shoe is within the little spoof ‘ballet’ in act One. 


There are several plot variations of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. The common interpretation portrays the crisis of Prince Siegfried, who having fallen in love with the beautiful swan maiden Odette, is tricked into publicly declaring his intentions for the enchantress Odile, who has been transformed so that she appears identical to Odette. The story varies to offer either a tragic or happy romantic ending.

Liam Mower as The Prince and  Chris Trenfield as The Swan in Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake


Matthew Bourne’s version bucks tradition somewhat.

Act One

The Princes Bedroom

The Prince (played by Simon Williams in this performance) is being prepared for a day of official duties by his chambermaids and valets. An amusing scene unfolds, featuring lovely gems like his servants bending over, their backs creating a human staircase to aid his descent from bed. The humour continues as he’s then plonked onto a maids knee, where a number of minions simultaneously attend to his personal care needs.

(I was surprised to note the female dance ensemble wearing heels at this point – but evidently I hadn’t yet twigged that this was not a traditional ballet!)

The Palace

Bored by various official tasks he’s attending alongside his Mother, The Queen (Saranne Curtin), the Prince’s fortune changes as he meets and takes a shine to the socially inept, ditzy “girlfriend” (Anjali Mehra).

An Opera House

The girlfriend joins the Royal party to watch a hilarious traditional ballet from a box on stage, inappropriately giggling at the comical woodcutter dancing in his white tights and shorts

As we watched this play within a play, I was shocked to hear the unwelcome tones of a mobile phone going off, but it soon became apparent from the “girlfriend’s” cringing smile that she was the culprit and not the audience! Oops – awkward!

Theatre Box

The Prince’s Private Quarters

A disagreement between the Prince and the Queen is followed by a passionate rebuke from his mother.

A Seedy Club

The Prince follows the girlfriend to the Swank Bar, a hotbed of debauchery, where we are treated to some modern dancing and an ‘erotic’ number performed by the most amusingly disinterested dancer, complete with a ciggy hanging from her mouth.

The Street

Having left the club worse for wear, The Prince waits outside sinking deeper into despair.

Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake

Act Two

A City Park

The Prince contemplates suicide, leaving his belongings and a note by the “Do not feed the swans” sign, but then meets the swans, all played by male dancers. During a long dance sequence the Prince and the lead swan (Chris Trenfield) fall for each other.

Although this scene is incredibly powerful, with the strong male dancers emulating the aggressive elegance of the birds, after a while I found it a bit sameish. I suspect I’m in the minority here, but at this point I started to crave the different grace of female dancers.
Jonathan Ollivier as The Swan in Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake

Act Three

Scene One

After the interval we are party to a grand ball, where dancing, drinking and flirting are rife.  The charismatic and sexually aggressive “Stranger” enters (the same dancer as plays the swan). Bathed in red light the atmosphere oozes debauchery and the Stranger clad in black leather trousers, enhances the friction by flirting with all the women.

The Prince’s confusion and distress culminate in his shooting the girlfriend.

Act Four

The Prince’s Bedroom

His state of mind leads the Prince to be confined and ‘cared for’ by a team of medical staff. Cleverly positioned low level lighting casts huge shadows of the actors against the back wall, emphasising the Prince’s disturbed state of mind. The Queen’s giant shadow is particularly menacing.

The swans visit the Prince in his sleep, then attack first the Prince and then the lead Swan who has shown his allegiance to the Prince over them.

The Queen is distressed to find her dead son’s body.

Perhaps the Prince and the Swan will be united in death.


The dancing throughout is spectacular, especially the swans and the Prince and Lead Swan’s pieces. You know when a dancer jumps and then stays in the air for a moment longer than seems humanly possible? That.


If I’d spent the whole performance with my eyes closed I would still have loved listening to the orchestra’s rendition of Tchaikovsky’s remarkably beautiful and moving OPUS 20. Fortunately I was able to see the performance too and appreciate the brilliant choreography, which seemed totally in tune with every nuance of the music.    


This show runs for approximately 2 hours and 40 minutes and I suspect my children may have found it just a little too long to hold their attention, but there isn’t any content in it which I’d be concerned about them seeing. The relationship between the lead swan and the Prince was of a passionate rather than an overtly sexual nature.

MATTHEW BOURNE’S SWAN LAKE has been acclaimed as a landmark achievement on the international stage. At the end of the opening night’s performance the audience showed its appreciation with virtually every member of the audience rising to join in a lengthy standing ovation. It wasn’t exactly what I had been expecting but I would definitely hold it up there as a spectacular and memorable work which, given the chance, I’d happily watch again.


Tuesday 20th – Saturday 24th May

Evenings at 7.30 pm

Matinees on Wed, Thu & Sat at 2.30 pm

Tickets: £22.40 – £46.40


Robin Cousins’ ICE

Dirty Dancing

West Side Story

Happy Days


Starlight Express




White Christmas




32 comments… add one

Leave a Comment

%d bloggers like this: