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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Gielgud


  Meow Meow and Sailors/ Ph: Steve Tanner

It seemed like such a lovely, promising idea. Take one of the swooniest, most original French film musicals of its era – Jacques Demy’s delicate 1964 smash-hit The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, featuring a totally sung-through score by Michel Legrand – and hand it over to Emma Rice of Kneehigh, the robust Cornish company that in 2008 scored a hit of its own thanks to an inspired West End staging of that quintessentially British cinematic tearjerker Brief Encounter. Legrand was smitten with the latter production. It was the composer himself, perhaps still smarting from a failed adaptation of Umbrellas produced in New York in the late 1970s, who sought out Rice to direct this new version even though she’d never seen the film. Still, all the signs pointed to a fresh perspective on evergreen cult source material. So why is the result so damp a disappointment?
It’s not for lack of trying. Assembled with the best of intentions, Kneehigh’s show is a labour of love about love, loss and resilience. Covering a period from 1957 to 1963, the focus of Demy’s slender, soapy script is the 20-year-old garage mechanic Guy (Andrew Durand, a gentle hunk) and Genevieve (pure-voiced Carly Bawden in the role that made Catherine Deneuve a star), the teen-age daughter of the widowed owner of an umbrella shop. Both inhabit the sleepy northern port town of Cherbourg, where the weather is fickle and transience is part of the rhythm of life. They are that universal and timeless cliché: young and besotted with each other. Alas, fate conspires against them. Genevieve’s maman (Joanna Riding, playing up the character’s brittle bourgeois aspirations) is in dire financial straits. And then Guy is called up to serve his country in Algeria. After one night of intimacy he leaves Genevieve pregnant and pining but with a rich, lovelorn suitor (Dominic Marsh) lurking in the wings.
Handling a slight story with impeccable, colour-coordinated tenderness, Demy fashioned from it a bittersweet classic. There was no need for characters to burst into song because everything – even the most banal exchanges – was vocalised via Legrand’s lilting melodies. But theatre is different from the movies. We need more variation of tone, vivacity and sheet theatrical magic than Rice and her creative team can pump into this melancholic romance. Sure, there are nice, sensitive touches and bits of invention, like the three sailors who throughout the show shift both props and their fellow cast members, or using life-size puppets in lieu of real children and objects – rags, flags, umbrellas and such – to indicate the passage of time. Lez Brotherston’s designs are marked by the kind of panache we expect from him, while Cynthia Erivo is touchingly simple and direct as the patient, loyal nurse who looks after Guy’s invalid aunt (Marsh again, resisting camp despite the cross-dressing). But over-all the dramatic engine is running low on fuel.
Rice’s biggest deviation from the film was to cast the Australian cabaret artiste Meow Meow as Maitresse, a living framing device for the rather insipid narrative. Even toned down, her rueful comic style is more tantalising than anything else onstage. She also sings "Sans Toi," a ballad stolen from Legrand’s back catalogue, with greater emotional heft than anything else we hear. What does it tell you if the most vivid element of a screen-to-stage adaptation was conjured out of thin air? This is not a dreadful show, just bland and with, at best, a mild, second-hand Gallic charm that never fully justifies its existence.


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