Gielgud Theatre, London W1
Opened 22 March, 2011

There seems to be some expectation that this will prove to be a “Marmite” show: people will either love it or hate it. I’m afraid I fall unhelpfully between the two extremes.
There is much here to like and to admire. Jacques Demy’s 1964 film is a classic, not least for its audacity in having the entirety of its dialogue sung to a score by Michel Legrand. It is not a musical; there are few songs as such (although the main romantic number “I Will Wait For You” is a thing of rare beauty); most of the vocal score is recitative. Indeed, the slug-line for this stage version describes it as “a French romance that just happens to be sung”. It adds a dreamlike quality, at once unreal and hyperreal, to the tale of young Geneviève and her love for motor mechanic Guy in this 1950s Norman port; when he is drafted to the Algerian War, leaving her with child, her umbrella-shopkeeper mother counsels her to make her life elsewhere.
Lez Brotherston’s impressive designs further stress that this is not the everyday world: a model townscape, a clutch of big neon signs, even for no obvious reason a slide down which the lovers shoot. And the Kneehigh company have a deserved reputation for telling out-of-the-ordinary tales in an out-of-the-ordinary way; here, as well as the music and the dance routines, several spoken segments of introduction and framing are delivered by a new character, Maîtresse, played by “kamikaze cabaret” diva Meow-Meow, who first reaches the stage by clambering over the audience (beginning, on press night, with Jonathan Ross).
I wondered at first whether it was due to some deficiency on my own part that, despite all this potential wonder, I felt no real transports myself, no love for the piece. Director Emma Rice notes that she and Kneehigh have a great taste for “wonder tales”, especially those that end on a note of tristesse as Guy and Geneviève’s story does. Here, for me at least, despite a simple but beautiful coup in the final moment, even in its native language the tristesse refused to flow. I cannot identify the missing element at the heart of this re-creation, but something is palpably absent. Hélas.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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