Friday, 8 February 2013

Midnight Tango - review

Written by: Alisdair Hinton (@AliHinton88)

Phoenix Theatre, London

No puns or clever lines, no smart word games playing on the shows themes, Midnight Tango is a joy, a triumph from start to finish. Go and see it. 

Photo: Manuel Harlan
All too often in the theatre, productions fall lazily into different categories based entirely on their target audience, or more specifically what the producers think that audiences want. You get the eminently watchable but ultimately unexciting Chekov revival with a cast of television names that do nothing to stir the audience’s emotions but certainly bring joy to the accountants. Whilst at the other end of the spectrum there is the fringe obscurity that feels as though for it to be labelled a financial success would somehow lead to the piece losing all of its artistic merit. There can of course be found everything in between. The boundaries blur, directors get lucky, and some productions (although it seems increasingly few) are exciting, current and successful in their own right and on their own terms. It is, however, a rare show indeed that transcends the normal, is excellent from beginning to end and never drops the ball, but Midnight Tango is one of those shows.

The story is simple; in fact there isn’t really a story. Set in a bar that could happily exist in any Spanish speaking country of fiery Latin temperament it is an exploration of the themes of the Tango. Love, lust, passion, betrayal and conflict all play their own part in the piece. A couple are in love, an evil outsider threatens to derail proceedings, an ageing husband and wife rekindle the fire in their relationship whilst others meet for the first time flirting or starting friendships; others it seems, just want to dance.

It would be easy at first sight to think that Midnight Tango might be just another cynical show looking to cash in on good timing and the celebrity status/television exposure of its two Strictly Come Dancing stars, Vincent Simone and Flavia Cacace, but it isn’t. There is a level of theatrical maturity and innovation within the show that is rarely seen in any theatre let alone dance or musical shows. The way in which one stunning moment shows Carlos the barman’s (Russell Grant, although not on this night) desire to dance with his wife is up there with the best narrative staging innovations achieved by lauded companies like Complicite or Ex Machina.

Photo: Manuel Harlan
Dance, like musical theatre is a form that exists outside of reality: people do not dance in the street to express how they feel or choose to sing rather than speak when emotions run high. Yet, many dance and musical shows persist with an entirely naturalistic style except for the moments when the dancing and singing happens. Director Karen Bruce embraces the freedom of dance, and uses it to great effect, when she wants to depart from realism and step into the symbolic she does so with grace and finesse. The narrative is never threatened but rather built on by a director unafraid of employing theatrical techniques usually reserved for stages outside of the West End.

The dancing is universally brilliant from all the company but it is also supported by an exceptional lighting design (James Whiteside) that knows just where to draw the audience’s eye from moment to moment, and a sound design (Gareth Owen) that is one of the most exciting and rousing imaginable. The on-stage band is faultless, and if they played in a bar in any town you would surely never be able to squeeze in for excited punters.

Photo: Manuel Harlan
Midnight Tango goes beyond what could reasonably be expected of it, it is certainly no coincidence it being on over valentines weekend, but don’t be fooled, it is so much more than a well timed product, it is one of the most high class and rewarding shows on a London stage for years. 

This production runs until 2 March 2013. 

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