Thursday, 17 March 2011

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg ****

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a story about first love, about finding that someone you think is special and the trials and tribulations that may arise as life so swiftly decided to get right in the way of it. ‘It’s so unfair!’ most people complain, and yes, often it is but this production is certainly not unfair, being a masterpiece of the modern innovative theatre style that we have come to recognise as distinctively Kneehigh. Having been rather disappointed with my trips to the theatre over the past couple of weeks, I was excited that there was a new Kneehigh show in town and eagerly rushed in to secure a ticket. I have seen a few Kneehigh shows before, although not in London, and was flabbergasted by each and every one, notably my favourite so far, Rapunzel. I am happy to say that The Umbrellas of Cherbourg lifts the roof off the disappointing aura of the past few weeks.
From the outset the show is different. Meow Meow enters through the audience having ‘come in the wrong door’ and begins the show generating raucous laughter from the audience. She is compelling throughout. She never drops the ball and her talent and pure love of the show radiates magnificently. I will definitely be keeping an eye out for her next solo cabaret night. Her opening skit is a perfect blend of humour and double-entendre with some audience participation thrown in for good measure and it works fantastically well.

When the set is brought to life you are certain you are watching a Kneehigh show. Small model buildings are sprayed across the stage in the form of the port town of Cherbourg before being hoisted up and replaced with a series of larger set pieces that the cast climb all over and dance around. Wonderful. It is a vibrant and colourful show, resembling a fly-by from all the birds of paradise discovered by man and a few more just for good measure. Everything is colourful, from the umbrellas in the shop to the costumes, the neon lights that light up the set, the balloons that are used for one of the sequences, you name it and it’ll be colouful. This gives it a far greater sense of charm than would have been possible otherwise, the feelings surrounding the boldness and naivety of first love making it feel like a child’s first painting. They bring it home and it’s a sheet covered with bright colours and it is marvelous. So bright and colourful is The Umbrellas of Cherbourg though I dare say at least a crayon-step more complex. A credit to Lez Brotherston that such good costumes and set is used throughout and to such wonderful and enchanting effect.

The whole show is sung throughout. I don’t mean there are songs as there are in a regular musical, splicing themselves between speech and scenes, I mean that it is sung. The cast don’t talk at any point, the lines are still intact as in a normal play except that they are sung and put to music. This represents a mammoth undertaking from composer Michel Legrand and a truly innovative show that works to further increase the charm of it all. The French setting helps with this as well, providing a sassiness that could only be found across the channel (and brought in its full unadulterated form to our fair shore by Meow Meow). Emma Rice says that the show is the definition of ‘chic’ and I would happily agree with her.
With the charm comes sophistication. The efforts of all the cast are to be noted for their vocal work especially, with every single member being a fantastic singer, but they were also more than capable dancers. In particular, the trinity of Gareth Charlton, Aki Omoshaybi and Matt Wilman providing a marvellous physical backdrop with their dance, whether it be a choreographed routine or their innovative methods of changing the set or even moving from A to B. The whole production flowed like a piece of music, never standing still and there wasn’t a moment that I felt bored or even distracted.
The main couple, brought to life by Carly Bawden and Andrew Durand were emotive as well as fun, their characterization faultless despite the unusual style. Happily, this was a trend throughout the cast. Joanna Riding, Dominic Marsh, Cynthia Erivo, Gareth Charlton and all the other performers brought believable and emotionally provocative characters to the show. You find yourself invested in them far more than you had ever expected and by the end you find yourself feeling as though you’re lost in a fairytale and although it’s not the happily-ever-after, you’re not sad to be there either.
This is a fantastic show in almost every sense of the word. It’s not the typical show you’d expect to see in a theatre but that is testament to the work that Kneehigh are doing continually to stand apart from the crowd. They have found a brilliantly talented cast and I hope they keep hold of them to bring us more shows similar in nature, with the expression in both dance and song because I did feel throughout as though the cast were holding back, like they were able to do something even more extravagant. I’m glad they didn’t as it wouldn’t have suited the show but I sincerely hope that they’ll have the chance to do so in the future.
Another groundbreaking success for Kneehigh, the West End and theatre in general. Don’t make excuses, go and see it before you kick yourself for missing the chance.

Written by Jaques Demy (Adapted by Emma Rice); Directed by Emma Rice; Music by Michel Legrand; at the Gielgud Theatre; Starring Meow Meow, Joanna Riding, Carly Bawden, Andrew Durand, Gareth Charlton, Dominic Marsh, Matt Wilman, Cynthia Erivo, Aki Omoshaybi; Runs from 05 March 11 - 01 October 11.

John Ord (16/03/2011)

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