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.
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.
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.