Review: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg – Leicester Curve, 19/02/2011 (mat)


When?: Saturday 19th February 2011, matinee
Where?: The Curve, Leicester, stalls
Who?: Carly Bawden, Laura Brydon, Gareth Charlton, Andrew Durand, Cynthia Erivo, Aki Omoshaybi, Dominic Marsh, Meow Meow, Joanna Riding and Matt Wilman
Why?: A chance to see Umbrellas live on stage in the UK for the first ever time.

Jacques Demy’s 1964 French musical film Les Parapluies de Cherbourg is considered by many to be the greatest movie musical of all time, and has been a personal favourite of mine for as long as I can remember. I must have seen the film dozens of times, and still the beauty of Michel Legrand’s varied and iconic score never fails to move me. Demy’s quirky art house style is perfectly executed; a vivid colour scheme, memorable characters and heightened dramatic brilliance help to make Umbrellas the masterpiece that it remains today – at the same time creating a star in the shape of a young Catherine Deneuve. This new UK premiere production from suitably different theatre company Kneehigh certainly had big shoes to fill and sadly doesn’t even come close to emulating the experience of the movie. In fact, this production is one of the poorest new musicals I have seen in a while and is far, far short of the quality of previous Kneehigh productions such as The Red Shoes and Brief Encounter.

Umbrellas tells the story of young mechanic Guy (Durand) and Geneviève (Bawden), a couple very deeply in love. We are quickly introduced to Mme. Emery (Riding), the protective mother of Geneviève who owns an umbrella shop in Cherbourg. With the family business suffering (quite possibly due to the fact that they don’t manage to shift a single umbrella in the course of the show in a town where it always rains) Mme. Emery is forced to sell her jewellery to pay a debt, introducing businessman Roland Cassard (Marsh) who instantly falls in love with Geneviève. When 20 year old Guy is called up for military service in The Algerian War for a term of two years, it tests their resolve and committment to one-another, specifically Geneviève’s pledge to wait for his return. Despite Sheldon Harnick’s translation being over 30 years old (it being used in the only other stage production of Umbrellas in theatre history, the failed 1979 off-Broadway production which ran for just 22 performances) it is fit for purpose and is taken almost word-for-word. It is a shame that the flowery high-romance of the French libretto loses much of its potency when put into English, but I do accept that a French language production was never going to be a option commercially.

Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castelnuovo in the motion picture

Director Emma Rice tries to compensate for this by ‘sending up’ the sheer Frenchness of it all in various ways; she introduces a new character Lola (internationally renowned cabaret artist Meow Meow) whose inclusion is mostly pointless, although she does create the show’s finest moment, a French-language ballad in the second act. There are ‘magic sailors’ who help with scene transitions but, like Lola, serve little actual purpose in an expositional sense and act more as set dressing.  I spotted a few berets, too – but sadly no baguettes. The issue here is that the show doesn’t take itself in the least bit seriously. The movie – while very different and at times even a little strange – had a clear, focused and concise narrative and vision for the piece – in this production things happen with little rhyme or reason. There are also far too many unintentional laughs, especially in the first act, whereas the intentional humour fell way short. Rice aspires to create her own surrealist version of Umbrellas, but far too many liberties are taken and the result is frankly a poorly conceived, badly directed mess.

My group were not alone in cracking up in places we weren’t supposed to; after the cringe-inducing and painfully long opening (Lola giving the audience French lessons so we can understand the show better – despite the show being in English) things actually managed to get worse. The first set, some highly detailed miniatures depicting Cherbourg’s locales, was revealed and an ensemble member entered pushing along a small toy car. He then used his fingers as stick men to ‘act’ out something with another cast member as the music struck up and three dancing mechanics entered. If I am making it sound quirky and fun then I am telling it wrong; this was jaw-droppingly bad. Things improved slightly before taking another plunge into the realms of the horrific: inexplicably, the role of Aunt Elise – a plot-central and very important character in the story – is given to Dominic Marsh who also plays Cassard. Marsh is fine as Cassard, but as a dragged up Aunt Elise turns in one of the worst performances I have had the misfortune to witness on the professional stage. Marsh makes no attempt to disguise his deep voice and any emotional impact of the characters journey is lost – frankly it is a relief when the character exits. Every character seems to collapse on stage at least once, with Mme. Emery’s proving the most spectacular; the camp ‘magic sailors’ are great for a laugh and spend much of their time lifting and carrying around the lead characters – sometimes they are acknowledged, other times they are ignored and I am sure not even the cast know what they are meant to resemble.

Rather like this!

But undoubtedly the finest and most hilarious moment of the show came towards the climax (excuse the pun) of Act I. I’ll try not to give too much of the plot away, but one of the pieces of set is a giant ramp which people occasionally slide down. As Guy and Geneviève are getting ‘intimate’, Guy helps Geneviève out of her underwear. Hilarity ensues as an, I am not joking, enormous pair of white underpants are taken off, briefly held aloft by the triumphant Guy, and then dropped off the side of the set. Think Bridget Jones meets Tena Lady Extra Extra Large Support Pants. Just when we thought things couldn’t get any better (or worse, for those who wanted to see a decent adaption) they proceed to do some very uncomfortable looking jiggy action whilst trying to slide down the ramp. Guy holding on to the sides of the ramp for dear life, a look of sheer terror in his eyes, is an image I will carry with me to the grave. Big White Pantsgate is undoubtedly going to go down in the annals of theatre history alongside Behind the Iron Mask, Too Close to the Sun and Gone with the Wind: The Musical. Elphaba has her broomstick, The Phantom has his mask, and Geneviève has her giant white pants. The second act does bring a small improvement, but not enough to save the show. The final few scenes are rather well acted in particular by Cynthia Erivo as Madeleine. That is until the very final moments of the show when, for the first time real emotion is being conveyed, they wheel on puppet children. You couldn’t make this stuff up.

If you’ve never seen Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, don’t let this be your first experience – I promise you, the movie is nothing like this production. The DVD is available here and, laughably bad moments aside, provides an altogether more satisfying and enjoyable telling of this story than Kneehigh’s production. This production is en route to the West End (previews from 5th March) and tellingly top price tickets for all performances have been slashed by around 40% – less than a week after opening in Leicester.

- Harry Zing


A word on the venue;

My first visit to the impressive Leicester Curve, a very modern venue reminiscent of The o2 in layout and style. The auditorium is marvellous; the seats are extremely comfortable and the views are good from almost everywhere although I would favour the stalls over the dress circle for proximity to the stage. The acoustics are also very good and there is a rather spiffing little cafe area in the foyer.

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15 Responses to “Review: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg – Leicester Curve, 19/02/2011 (mat)”

  1. John J Says:

    Have to disagree with your review – I thought it was a wonderful production. My partner and I came all the way from Aberystwyth specially to see it, and it was well worth the trip!

    Incidentally, this is not its first time in the UK – we saw a short-lived production at the Phoenix in the West End back in 1979 and have fond memories of that too!

  2. Sinead W Says:

    I saw the debut performance on the preview night at Curve. I cringed at the ridiculous big knickers moment, sat awkwardly through Lola’s opening section and chuckled at the poor chap who played aunt Elise!!! However unrefined some moments might have been there were definate moments of clarity and beauty. The above review comments perfectly on the abilities of the actors and there performances but misses the elegance of the choreography. I thoroughly enjoyed the Brechtian element of the sailors role and thought that they, the band and the narrator put the show into its contemporary context and delievered great performances. I believe that more contemporary musicals should be performed in this manner and really enjoyed the luxury of such a piece being previewed at Curve.
    Maybe I was too forgiving and thought that the performance would evolve with more run time? If you are looking for an all singing all dancing piece do not see this but if you are genuinely looking for something slightly different you will not be dissapointed.

  3. Robert Kenney Says:

    Just returned from an uncomfortable evening watching this production at the Curve and wished I had read this review before venturing out. The set is rather fine but I remain as bemused as the reviewer as to what the director had in mind when putting this show together. The story should surely elicit some emotional engagement but is presented in a way that is simply risible. Drag in a wheelchair and wooden child actors were just a couple of jaw dropping decisions. While beyond parody, Cassard’s Michael Palin moustache was about the only quite distracting detail Harry Zing missed.

  4. Sara Says:

    We travelled from Brighton to see the Umbrellas of Cherbourg. We have loved the film and soundtrack for many years and were overjoyed that they were making it into a stage musical. However we were bitterly disappointed. The ghastly opening with Meow Meow – couldn’t take my eyes of the VPL! Toy car, fingers walking and sailors lifting the characters onto chairs etc distracted from the singing. I didn’t engage with the characters at all – were was the emotion of the film? Big knickers and wooden puppet dolls all horrible!

  5. Steve H Says:

    Seduced by beautiful set and gorgeous horn playing. Meow Meow is finest original music theatre performer seen for a good while. A very musical musical which held me enthralled.

  6. Polly P Says:

    Very strange. Lots of singing but only one song. Strange characters that aren’t very likeable. Strange contrast between the main show and the parts with Lola. Weird sex scene. Weird puppet children. Generally weird…but I liked the set.

  7. Jamie Moore Says:

    I had the pleasure of seeing the show tonight, and I thoroughly enjoyed it! The puppet children were a little odd, and the character of Lola was not necessary, but the show was fun, romantic and all around magical.

  8. Dave G Says:

    Couldn’t be more right about this show!!!
    I saw one of the first previews at the Curve, not really knowing what to expect, not really knowing the original film to compare it to. I must say that all of your points are soooo true. What was rather awkward when I saw the production was that I happened to be sitting just behind the director and creative team. At points I just wanted to start laughing uncontrollably, but just resigned myself to violently shaking. The french ballad by the Lola character was the highlight of the show in my eyes, though incredibly random, like her role. The aunt character just made me laugh again, more to do with confusion at the casting. I’m soo glad someone picked up on the bridget jones granny pants, coz i was too in fits as the couple struggled to not just slide down the rather steep slope. For me the worst thing in the show was the score, which was immensely repetitive and cringe – worthy in parts. The puppet children looked like something from Jim Henson’s Dark Crystal. Right some positives. I happened to like the staging and scenery, that from the off created great ambiance (shame about the show :P).I can’t really criticise the cast as to be fair they did do their jobs with conviction; personally thinking they should all get a medal. When passing the Gielgud Theatre in London, I couldn’t help thinking that the transfer is just going to be a massive fail!! So yeah, want an entertaining evening, go and see this show, it might just make you laugh for all the wrong reasons. Shame Kneehigh have actually produced a shocking show!!

  9. N.R.S.L Says:

    London, Evening Performance 12/03/2011:
    I could not believe how poor this was. I went with no expectations, totally open-minded, ready only to enjoy a night of theatre. But with the exception of the flittering moments of fun at the start & intermission of the show (which themselves were not executed with the skill necessary to make them truly entertaining)I just felt SORRY for the actors/dancers/musicians. Watching the dancers I wondered what they felt as they went through the routines they had been asked to or watched the principal characters deliver such scenes. “Embarrassment” came to mind. I understand how hard it is to make a living in the theatre so I feel so sorry for all those involved.
    The blame must lay with the director, the individual who had this concept, the people who didn’t say at the very start “what? what are you doing? this is awful!”. The umbrellas of cherbourg should only be opened again to shield the people, truly responsible for this, from the rotten fruit that should be thrown in honest response! Awful

  10. Jeremy Reynolds Says:

    I also saw the London evening performance on 12 March. I have seen the film, and consider it one of my favourites.

    I am staggered by the poor reviews, and should point that around me in the dress circle many people gave the show a standing ovation. Although perhaps not the greatest work of art ever, and not without minor flaws, it is a perfectly enjoyable production. It is true that the cod-French preamble and interjections are curious, but they are mildly entertaining. The idea of instructing the audience in French when the show is in English is obviously a joke. The opening strikes an odd chord, but the later appearances of “Lola” are fine, and there are some subtle uses of her among other scenes which are beautifully judged.

    I thought the production “gimmicks” worked very well – the sailor pushing the car and “acting” with his fingers was fun, and the use of the extras to carry the leads around from time to time was very clever – it enabled very striking images to be achieved (particularly Madame Emery and Cassard sharing an armchair) without clumsy scrambling, and allowed a few knowing jokes later on.

    The only really odd point was Dominic Marsh playing Aunt Elise – it seems like wantonly eccentric casting.

    However the cast generally sing very well, the leads are good, the acting is fine and the band is excellent. Although as one person comments above there is (to all intents and purposes) only one song, it is a brilliant song, and this production gives it full value – both act I and act II finales are superb.

    • Harry Zing Says:

      It certainly does seem to the theatrical marmite; we’ll have to see what the critics make of it. I am fully expecting a mixed bag; the Guardian for instance will probably love it (especially if Gardner is reviewing) and will likely give it 5* as a ‘visionary’ piece. I am sure many more of the ‘traditional’ critics will hate it and we will see as many 1* reviews as anything else.

  11. Stevie Says:

    8pm 16.3.2011 Gielgud: Audiences that pay homage to Jacques Demy’s 1964 film may be disappointed, although some aficionados have complimented this conversion. Thankfully, although a lover of Agnès Varda, I’ve not got around to much of her late husband’s work so ‘could enjoy the evening. Despite the flaws, somewhere in this show you might identify with the sentiments on offer.

    This is yet more theatre that uses signage (albeit comically, non was needed), instead of actors, lighting, sound, ambience and audience intelligence to tell you what’s going on. Thankfully on this occasion not by crude video screens except to say ‘Fin’ (‘End’ in English, got it?) which is just plausible for a film adaptation. Euro cinema has a habit of telling you when it is time-to- go-home.

    The diva compere (Maitresse by the infamous Meow Meow) get’s close to taking over the show. The ensemble needs to match her confidence, performance and stature; don’t be intimidated. Maitresse sings a beautiful Legrand-Varda song Sans Toi that’s not in Demy’s film but a clever choice from Varda’s Cléo de 5 à 7. I’ve a hunch Meow Meow has the ability to really crank up last night’s performance of that song which would be something for audiences to go away with, essential if the show is to run into black brollies. The chance was missed to ask MM if the esteemed Legrand and Varda have seen and made comment, scary! Notes and a coach for MM and most of the cast, hopefully it will live long enough to sort out les majorations de qualité. A tissue or two required, either to laugh or cry in all the wrong places.

  12. Stevie Says:

    16 & 19.3.2011 Notes: Kneehigh Prod’s have an excellent template and masterpiece (Demy 1964) to work from so no reason not to raise the roof – eventually. The slinky-jazz dance interludes by sailors are fine but not when performed sloppily, they should be slick and perfectly synchronised. The USA may no longer reign supreme over musicals but it appears we still need them to teach dance, ‘shame non of them hung around at Gielgud post Hair. Compere Maitresse’s authenticity is questionable but she does have a legitimate task, from the film, later in the show. Her post interval warm up would do better focussing on les grands sentiments de vie. Genevieve and Madeleine are made to hang around uncomfortably on stage for two of Maitresse’s performances, perhaps to make her feel welcome?

    Although my pet hate is the inept use video and text instructions the laughable captions retain la saveur française and give the sailors something to do; delete all the chronology signals. After seeing a series of poor endings in WE shows it’s pleasing to see Parapluies concluded with such power and brevity; be ready. Just brilliant, a third visit tomorrow with press.

  13. […] and tits – and see them all – as well as one of the most cringe inducing sex scenes since this atrocity. Despite the rather uninspiring title, it is in fact Producer/Director/Self-Appointed Star of the […]

  14. […] had previously seen Erivo earlier this year in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and despite her having one of the smallest roles, she was one of the few people to come away from […]

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