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The Umbrellas of Cherbourg - Best of London's West End Musicals
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Les Parapluies de Cherbourg)
The Gielgud Theatre
*** (3 Star Rating)
By Fiona Lister
Kneehigh’s production of Michel Legrand’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg makes ideal viewing for anyone who enjoys cabaret and weepy, lip trembling melancholy. Although this may sound like an unusual combination, it works. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a production I’d recommend for a pensive afternoon or a girls’ night out – it’s a soppy chick’s musical and will leave you thinking about past loves, break-ups and affairs of the heart....
Right from when you walk into the auditorium the audience becomes part of the action. The sound of seagulls flying over the Cherbourg port accompanied by the cool, loved up strains of a pianist and bass player gives the ambience of being in a hotel lounge bar, soaking up the jazz vibe. Sailors donning stripy tops and smoking cigarettes lie top of the piano posing like Jean Paul Gaultier fashion models. They roam about spying on everyone and if you are lucky enough to sit in the front row might be kissed by one, as I found out! Je t’aime.
The story evolves when Guy is drafted for war in Algeria leaving heartbroken Geneviève alone and pregnant. Enter the Parisian jeweler, thirty-something Roland Cassard (Dominic Marsh) who falls in love with Geneviève unconditionally. He is willing to wed her despite the pregnancy. Eventually, torn between waiting for Guy who barely writes, and pressure from her cash-strapped mother, Geneviève relents, but unhappily so. Two years later when Guy returns from Algeria, he hears of their nuptials and resorts to heavy drinking and hanging out in seedy Cherbourg bars. His Aunt Elise dies and he Madeleine become lovers, marry and have a son, François (puppet). I won’t say what happens at the end of the story, but it’s certainly a cliffhanger and I wanted to find out more. “C’est la vie” just wasn’t enough!
Joanna Riding impresses as Madame Emery with her flamboyant array of colourful umbrellas. However, for someone who is suffering the hardship and indignity of financial ruin, she is dressed rather too splendidly.
Cabaret star Meow Meow (yes, that’s her name!) plays Maîtresse, a French lady of d’ un certain âge who hangs about with sailors in the port, drinks vin rouge and flirts outrageously with them and members of the audience. The multi award winning Meow Meow looks like a cross between Vicki Michelle (of Allo Allo fame) and Liza Minnelli. Maîtresse is a storyteller – a kind of cabaret mistress of ceremonies with an implied lurid history. Meow Meow possesses tremendous on stage presence and is well-known for her voice which is described as “Diamanda Galás drowned in cherry liqueur…She has the audience hanging on her every move” (The Age). Ms Meow has been named as one of the top performers of 2010 by The New Yorker, Top Ten Best Cabaret by Time Out New York, ‘cabaret diva of the highest order’ by The New York Post, ‘sensational’ by The Times and ‘a phenomenon’ by the Australian press. (http://www.meowmeowrevolution.com). The audience loved her cheesy one-liners about how the French perceive the Brits and laughed at her comedic flirtations with the sailors. The monologue at the beginning of the show takes skill to pull off. Without that level of talent this production would have fallen flat. Meow is definitely the glue holding the show together.
Carly Bawden and Andrew Durand give a great performance as the lovesick couple, Geneviève and Guy. Their rendition of "I Will Wait For You” is truly haunting. However, some of the love scenes are just too cringe-making, especially the loss of virginity scene when Guy downs his trousers and hops onto his lover at the top of a slide, like an urgent whippet. Yes, the couple start to slip slightly at the top and we expected them to zoom down the slide at speed. Enter men in ‘elf ‘an’ safety ‘elmets!
Kneehigh’s award winning Director, Emma Rice, has produced imaginative feel good work. The Kneehigh theatre company are known for their successful touring productions and this fascinating musical comes hot on the heels of the international smash-hit success of Brief Encounter in London and New York.
The musical score is pleasing but not overly fantastic and there are two memorable songs. This recitative musical is composed by Michel Legrand who wrote (Yentl, Windmills of your Mind) and features two of his greatest works: "Watch What Happens" and "I Will Wait for You". Lyrics have been translated by Sheldon Harnick (Fiddler on the Roof),
Watching this cabaret come love story produces all the emotions of taking a comforting soapy bubble bath after a difficult day. The sentimentality and pizzazz wash away negativity, and the visual eye candy of coloured umbrellas, strapping dancing sailors, clever puppetry and a wonderfully romantic set makes you forget the lack of catchy musical scores and bitty scenes. The rain sodden port of Cherbourg initially seems like a depressing scene for a love story but the on stage band and strong visuals, vibrancy and colour lift the spirits.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a vivacious adaptation of the original film and has been directed and written from the heart. Well worth seeing this adult love story.
Thanks to Delfont Mackintosh, Kneehigh, a budding theatre company and registered charity, has enjoyed success and a chance to shine on the West End stage. www.kneehigh.co.uk. Don’t miss this charming show!