The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Gielgud, London
The Knot of the Heart, Almeida, London
The Holy Rosenbergs, NT Cottesloe, London
C'est l'amour – all that joie de vivre and yet it ends with a Gallic shrug
Sunday 27 March 2011
It was only puppy love. Thus Madame Emery, the chichi shopkeeper in the musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, brushes aside her daughter Geneviève's infatuation with Guy, a mechanic called up for French national service.
Director Emma Rice, of Kneehigh renown, has won hearts with her playful and passionate style of physical theatre. And at first sight I was quite taken with her new West End show, adapted from Jacques Demy's quirkily sung-through, 1964 film (which starred the teenage Catherine Deneuve).
Lez Brotherston's set has an attractive retro chic. A miniature Cherbourg floats above the stage, with a seafront hotel and Guy's garage glowing in the dark. Below, as if seen through love-tinted specs, life is brightly coloured with a neon sign spelling out "Je t'aime" in lipstick red – at least until our smitten hero and heroine are parted.
Choreographically, Rice pulls out all the stops. Carly Bawden's Geneviève twirls balletically, anticipating a date with Andrew Durand's Guy. A jazz-club shimmy follows, and the sweethearts bollard-hop on the quayside, borne through the air by a chorus line of sailors. They're expressionistically flying high (a Rice trademark).
However, none of that stops the recitative bringing you down to earth with a thud. A lyric such as "You smell of petrol" clunks bathetically, where in the movie, in French and in close-up, it had more novelty and charm. Another downer is that Bawden and Durand have no sexual chemistry, so who cares when, instead of waiting for his demob, she marries a dull jeweller? And isn't it also oddly apolitical to have Guy's ever-loving housemaid played by a black actress, with no discernible directorial awareness that his soldiering has been in France's colonial campaign in Algeria?
Michel Legrand's jazzy score is pleasant easy listening, but most of it just washes by. The perky, onstage band lacks the film score's yearning violins. Though Bawden's "I Will Wait For You" has touching melodic simplicity, the voluptuous cabaret artist Meow Meow is more engaging, serving as this production's comically slinky MC.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg's most notable feature remains its "c'est la vie" shrug of a conclusion. There is no fairytale ending: Guy and Geneviève's romance is simply defeated by social pressures and realism. What's depressing is, in truth, how Rice's visually busy but psychologically shallow directing wears thin. Although a programme note concludes, "Life goes on, we have endured", falling out of love with this production left me disgruntled.
In David Eldridge's new play, The Knot of the Heart, a kids' TV presenter, Lucy (Lisa Dillon), spirals into squalid drug addiction. Her alarmed mother, Barbara (Margot Leicester), cares for her at her well-to-do home, but her devotion only exacerbates Lucy's problem. The daughter feels herself trapped and keeps relapsing. Only with step-by-step professional help does she eventually stand on her own feet again.
So far, so worthy, but the story makes for an appallingly plodding play. Why didn't director Michael Attenborough "just say no"? The cast do their best with a script that is at once platitudinous and laboured, but surely one shouldn't be wondering if Dillon is sprawled in a heap and Leicester is necking gallons of red wine because the dialogue's too bad to bear.
Ryan Craig's new drama, The Holy Rosenbergs, is absorbing by comparison, with its exploration of the contemporary British-Jewish community in Edgware, north-west London. The Rosenberg family is riven by generational tensions and conflicting views on Israel. Henry Goodman's David, who cherishes his roots and his kosher catering business, is putting on a cheerful brave face. However, he is struggling to cope with the funeral of his soldier-son, killed fighting in Gaza, while his daughter (Susannah Wise) doggedly investigates Israeli war crimes and her kid brother (Alex Waldmann) becomes a tearaway.
Laurie Sansom's cast is mostly excellent and the suburban décor of the Rosenbergs' lounge is spot on. Act One gets off to a slow start, though, with a stiffly acted rabbi paying a visit. Later Craig's plot gets cluttered, and the political arguments verge on mini-lectures. So, interesting, but uneven.
'The Umbrellas of Cherbourg' (0844 482 5130) to 1 Oct; 'The Knot of the Heart' (020-7359 4404) to 30 Apr; 'The Holy Rosenbergs' (020-7452 3000) to 24 Jun
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