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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
Gielgud Theatre      Spring 2011

In1957 France a shopkeeper's daughter and a garage mechanic fall in love and spend a night of passion before he is drafted and sent to war in Algeria. Pregnant and feeling abandoned, she accepts the proposal of a rich man. And then the soldier comes home from the war.

Much of the charm of Jacques Demy's 1964 film of bittersweet romance came from the novelty of having all the dialogue, even incidental small talk, sung to the music of Michel Legrand. (The presence of Catherine Deneuve didn't hurt either.)

The device is carried over to this new stage version devised and directed by Emma Rice of Kneehigh Theatre, but perhaps because we've had plenty of sung-through stage musicals since 1964, the novelty and charm aren't quite as strong.

And since, with a couple of notable exceptions, Sheldon Harnick's English lyrics are almost assertively banal and prosaic (Would an occasional flight of poetry or eloquence of any sort really have hurt?), what pleasures there are here are to be found almost entirely in the production.

(I say 'almost' because amidst the mass of movie-music underscoring there are two truly lovely melodies in Michel Legrand's score, both of which inspire lyricist Harnick to something a bit less pedestrian - the well-known 'I Will Wait For You' and the rich man's declaration of love and loneliness.)

Emma Rice's adaptation adds a new character as scene-setter and narrator, and cabaret artiste Meow Meow dominates and almost completely runs away with the evening.

Flirting outrageously with the audience, slithering sexily around the stage, singing and dancing with irresistible personality, she is frequently far more interesting and entertaining than anyone and anything in the story itself.

When she interrupts the action to coo the interpolated Piaf-ish torch song 'Sans Toi' she puts everything else to shame.

Emma Rice's special talent as a director is in creating moments of heart-stopping stage magic, and there are some of those here. Meow Meow's narrator is accompanied by three dancing sailors, and the four of them become stagehands in the Chinese mode, wandering through the action in implied invisibility, moving sets and props and responding emotionally to the action.

A Kneehigh signature is the use of flying to symbolise passion, and here Rice doesn't put the lovers on wires but repeatedly has them lifted by the 'invisible' sailors and carried toward each other.

Rice's choreography consists mainly of the fluid movement of sets and actors, though there are three evocative set pieces, an early tango for the lovers, a nightmarish nightclub sequence for the despairing soldier, and a totally irrelevant but thoroughly delightful kittenish dance for Meow Meow and her sailors.

Joanna Riding, playing the girl's mother, gets star billing alongside Meow Meow, but it is an almost faceless supporting role. Carly Bawden in the Deneuve role has a strong presence and a lovely voice, but Andrew Durand is too bland and generic as the mechanic/soldier to make much impression.

This is very much the Meow Meow show, with everything else harmless and painless filler between her star turns.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg - Gielgud Theatre 2011