A chilling tale of love and revenge in dance theatre at its very best: Phantoms by Mark Bruce Company

Merlin Theatre, Frome
February 4, 2022

Phantoms, the 50-minute headline work of Mark Bruce’s new triple bill isn’t just a trip to the dark side, it’s a trip to its deepest depths. Typical of the hauntingly beautiful, cinematic dance theatre that the choreographer has become known for, it is also quite simply terrific.

Reuniting the same creative team that produced Dracula and Macbeth, and with a super original score by Bruce himself, in collaboration with jazz pianist Gareth Williams and West End singer Eva Trodd, Phantoms is an always moody, sometimes vicious, sometimes downright savage tale of love, tragedy and revenge.

The story is told with economy but also with grace and elegance. It rattles along, moving swiftly but easily from scene to scene, blurring past and present along the way. Phantoms and its characters reach deep inside and hit hard the emotional consciousness.

Phantoms by Mark Bruce
(pictured: Eleanor Duval, Christopher Thomas)
Photo Mark Bruce

The supernatural puts in a few appearances too with the help of more fantastic masks by Pickled Image. There are ghostly dogs forever running as if hunting people down, a mobile phone-savvy troll, and figures with hooded skulls who act as a sort of backing group to a duet by long-time Bruce dancers Eleanor Duval and Jonathan Goddard.

Don’t worry too much if you struggle to make sense of it all initially, though. Just sit back and enjoy the fantastic imagery and superb dance. And it does all come together at the end in a classic showdown.

It all takes place on a road crossing waste ground. Rough crosses are scattered, marking the burial place of who knows who. A full moon shines above. A city looms in the distance. Among set designer Phil Eddolls’ other magical work is a full-size car, although best is an old piano with a woody creeper growing out of it that suggests age and past times. It returns again and again, and is the scene for the quieter moments. How things once were, perhaps. A woman plays, another sings. Yet even here one senses foreboding and a nip in the air.

Guy Hoare does wonders with the lighting, adding extra layers to the atmosphere and using brief blackouts to great effect.

Eleanor Duval in Mark Bruce’s Phantoms
Photo Mark Bruce

Duval and Goddard are as compelling as you would expect, but equally superb are Bryony Harrison, Carina Howard and Christopher Thomas as they portray other characters in this cruel, brutal, unforgiving world. Thomas manages to look almost gaunt, as though he has been through, seen, more than anyone should, although it’s the women who often seem the more powerful, frightening characters.

Some of it is deeply disturbing. Yet you can’t take your eyes off it. The sight of a rough-hewn coffin which we find contains Harrison sends a shiver down the spine. Most chilling though is when the cornered Thomas is coldly and calculatedly disposed of. I’ll not give the game away and say how, but that you see it coming a little way off just makes it even more gruesome.

At the end, there was this moment of silence before the audience realised they had been released from its hold and could breathe again. Phantoms is dance theatre at its absolute best, a real coming together of every single element. If it doesn’t win awards, I will be very surprised.

Christopher Thomas and Bryony Harrison in Mark Bruce’s Green Apples
Photo Mark Bruce

Phantoms – A Triple Bill is nothing if not a mixed bill in all senses, though. It opens with the return of Bruce’s 10-minute duet Green Apples, made originally in 2006 for the Royal Opera House Clore Studio Summer Collection. Set to five numbers by American garage rock duo The White Stripes (husband-and-wife Jack and Meg White) who were prominent in the 2000s, it’s a visceral dance full of rock concert energy that all takes place in the confines of a rope circle.

At first, Harrison and Thomas pace, twist and turn around each other as if sizing each other up. As the battle of wills develops, they push against each other and grapple like wrestlers. Just as powerful and perhaps even more loaded with meaning are the pauses, however, the couple just facing each other. It’s impossible not to read it as a rocky moment in a relationship. It ends unresolved, but is a great start to the evening.

Jonathan Goddard and Carina Howard
in ‘Beaulampkin’ from Mark Bruce’s Folk Tales
Photo Mark Bruce

In contrast to the earthy battle of Green Apples, Bruce’s new Folk Tales is loaded with fast fast, intricate, light footwork. Folk dance combines with ballet in seven eloquent and expressive dances to songs and music by formidable English folk singer, guitarist and songwriter Martin Simpson.

Bruce sometimes very much choreographs the story of the songs. ‘Beaulampkin’ is a dark and gory tale about a mason who builds a castle for a lord who then refuses to pay. In revenge, he enters the lord’s home, sticks needles and pins in his wife’s baby, then kills her before being caught and hanged. Goddard is at his dark best in the lead role.

Thomas is incredibly light in ‘Betsy the Serving Maid’, in which an old woman stops her son marrying the woman of the title by “sending her away to be a slave in Amerikay.” Her comment that she would “rather see my son lying dead than to see him married to a serving maid” comes back to haunt her.

Others are simply all about the cheery music and dance, including the intricate opening tune, ‘Soldier’s Joy’, in which Howard bounces along beautifully to Simpson’s banjo-led tune. Best is ‘Augmented Unison’, however. Duval and Goddard combine beautifully in easy choreography to Simpson’s lockdown-created ukulele gem, which combines traditional English folk with just a hint of sea shanty.

Bruce promised it would be a blast, and it’s just that. It whizzes past. Like all the best dance, it left you wanting more, which pretty much sums up the super evening as a whole.

Phantoms – A Triple Bill by Mark Bruce Company continues on tour to Theatre Royal, Winchester; Wilton’s Music Hall, London; DanceEast, Ipswich; and the Salisbury Playhouse.