The visual landscape has a decided tilt in “Play Without Words,” but that’s nothing compared to the teasing spin that choreographer Matthew Bourne has applied to the pastime known as sex. The debut piece of his New Adventures company (Bourne’s celebrated troupe Adventures in Motion Pictures was disbanded when he and producer Katharine Dore went their separate ways), “Play Without Words” doesn’t possess anything like the emotional heft of his career-making, Tony-winning “Swan Lake,” and there will be those for whom the short two-act show constitutes little more than a sustained caprice.
But on its own terms, the devised piece justifies in one evening the Royal National Theater’s 13-strong Transformation season of work, amid which “Play Without Words” occupies a penultimate perch. Imagine a through-danced “Gosford Park” or — more accurately, given the 1965 setting — a class-themed film such as “The Servant” swoonily reinvented for the stage, and you get some idea of a show that looks set to be a hot ticket for the remaining two weeks of its limited run. The only question: Where can so experimental a performance hybrid possibly resurface, along — let us hope — with its ace 12-person cast? Unlike the same choreographer’s widely traveled “Cinderella” or “Swan Lake,” the recognition factor to a title like “Play Without Words” is limited to those steeped in Beckett — in describing what it is that dance does, the show’s very name sounds like a conflation of various Beckett texts — not the ballet staples on which Bourne has made his name riffing to such revelatory effect.
American auds may be better prepared for Bourne’s risk-taking here, given the surprise success of “Contact,” the tripartite Tony winner that, of course, does have a text. But Anglophiles of any stripe will warm to the drolly askew style of a piece that offers up recognizable London landmarks (Big Ben, the Post Office Tower, the red phone booths that have all but vanished here) while reveling in a deeply un-English take on sexual desire.
In his last show, “The Car Man,” Bourne seemed to be rabidly (and synthetically) applying sensuality from the outside in. No such worries here — as the ensemble moves to the beat of Terry Davies’ astonishingly feverish original jazz score, “Play Without Words” plays with the laws of attraction from every point of view until it isn’t just the various onstage trios who have been seduced.
Bourne’s conceit is to cast three performers in each role, thereby tripling the possible contrasts to and within couplings that throw aside such ostensible barriers as class and sexuality in their hurry to get to a heated rondelay. While a trumpet-playing Alan Vincent sets the ardent tone to come, the unspoken narrative narrows its focus to a Chelsea home that is, quite literally, getting into the swing. The master of the house is the sleek, bespectacled Anthony, fiance to the ever-so-glam Glenda, played by three distaff performers who sashay about in sequins shining no less brightly than the male dancers’ smoothed-backed hair. (In a uniformly accomplished cast, most of whom are Bourne regulars, one must single out the baby-faced sex bomb that is the Prince William lookalike of a little-known — though not for long — Richard Winsor.)
The world is one of privilege and pearls that gets upended by the literally below-stairs presence of Prentice, Anthony’s bisexual manservant. (Can there be any other kind?) With the housemaid Sheila and an old friend called Speight along for the cavorting, elegant dress soon has given way to the dictates of the libido, which Bourne catches in physical terms every bit as nimble as the jazzy undulations of the Davies score.
As always, Bourne’s filmic borrowings — his former company didn’t have Motion Pictures in its title for nothing — are no less intriguing than his eclectic choreographic command: Dance enthusiasts will have fun picking out the homages to Robbins, Balanchine and Bourne’s own output (the decade-old “The Percys of Fitzrovia,” especially), with the sexually awakened Anthony equal parts baleful languor and no-holds-barred lust.
Bourne’s “Swan Lake,” with its celebrated all-male corps de ballet, made painfully clear the price of desire and packed an emotional wallop that the purely witty “Play Without Words” makes no attempt to approximate. In a sense, this latest work has the abandon of something early and free, when the ideas are arriving in full and ample flow. I don’t know that such a self-avowedly small piece has the makings of another Bourne franchise, but I’ll tell you this: “Play Without Words” is terrific fun.