Review – The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Gielgud Theatre

Tuesday 15 March 2011

For reasons quite unfathomable to Andrew, Phil is rather proud of the fact that he’s un peu francais.

Despite having a soupçon of French in him (on his father’s side) he displays no natural propensity for that tongue or any other come to that (indeed he frequently grapples with la langue maternelle).

Yes even he, with his Huguenot heritage, finds a little French schtick goes an awful long way.

A couple of excerpts from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg performed at the What’s On Stage Awards were enough to persuade the Whingers to give the Gielgud Theatre une très large couchette indeed. It just looked as if it might be too flippin’ French. Or, less insensitively, too flippin’ faux French – like being forced into a beret and tricolour culottes for a meal of horse meat in snail sauce while watching a Jerry Lewis movie.

And to be honest, it looked a bit, well, merde. And then we read this.

So unlike Baz Bamigboye (who according to the adverts is “dying to see it”) the Whingers had found themselves bearing a certain froideur vis-à-vis The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

But tickets presented themselves and never being ones to look un cadeau cheval dans la bouche we thought, “Qui ne risque rien n’a rien”…

Kneehigh‘s version of the classic Jaques Demy 1964 film (music Michel Legrand) comes mostly courtesy of Emma Rice who has directed, adapted and choreographed it which sounds exhausting. What on earth is she on? No wonder she has cast a cabaret performer named after a stimulant, Meow Meow, to warm up the audience and guide them through it.

And it works a treat. Her newly added character – “Maîtresse” – clambers over the stalls (a tradition since Hair at the same theatre last year) to reach the stage and delivers an amusing introduction to Cherbourg (the French equivalent of Hull apparently) and to the show. Once we’re all nicely warmed up we’re introduced to the plot proper which is: 1957.  Boy (American import Andrew Durand) Meets Girl (Carly Bawden). Girl Gets Pregnant. Boy Gets Called Up To Fight In Algiers. We won’t tell you the rest because, frankly, even we were surprised, and we’ve seen it all.

Now we have to warn you that it’s rather unusual musical fare: the plot proper is completely sung-through and is practically all dialogue (as opposed to lyrics). While it lacks the singalong aspect of verse-chorus-verse of traditional musical theatre it has the benefit of making every moment count. The words are dropped into the melodies wherever they best fit meaning that there are snatches of melody which remain unsung. Some people may find it a trifle éprouvant. But the Whingers (who have no time whatsoever for recitative) found themselves enrapt.

It is quite sensationnel to look at (design: Lez Brotherston) and the sound (Simon Baker) is as clear as a cloche – you can hear almost every word of every song. The orchestrations (Legrand himself) are exquis. There’s a harp!  And who can fail to be swept away by THAT theme.

It also features an excellent Joanna Riding as the girl’s mother, the owner of the titular umbrella shop.

The Whingers were so transported that Andrew stopped fretting about the bad luck that would ensue from putting all those umbrellas up indoors. Phil even enjoyed a dance number involving balloons. Heck, they could have danced on his other theatrical bête noire, a park bench, and he wouldn’t have cared a jot. There is even a balloon utilised as a metaphor, rather amusingly as it turns out. Phil remained completely sang froid about the whole ballon thing.

We didn’t even mind the gratuitous tacking on of Legrand’s “Di-Gue-Ding-Ding” to cheer people up, the pointless gender-blind casting of Aunt Elise or even the interpolation of a song in French from Meow Meow (“Sans Toi” from the film Cleo de 5 a 7) which brought everything to a standstill (indeed, this was actually a highlight for Phil).

Both Whingers rather embarrassingly confessed to being “moved” at the end of the show. Mon Dieu!

TUOC will no doubt polarise opinion: several perplexed couples were spotted leaving at the interval. You will probably either love or hate it. Pure theatrical Marmite.


Phil thought it was very clever that they had even themed some of the staff. “Are you putting the accent on?” he asked the charming woman selling programmes in the foyer. “No I’m really French” she replied. “How clever of them” Phil retorted. “No” she continued “I was here long before zees show”.


Rating score 5-5 our cups overfloweth


33 Responses to “Review – The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Gielgud Theatre”

  1. Ed The Taxi Says:

    Sacre bleu ! Saw this in Leicester and thought it was tres bon, sat just in front of Emma Rice, she looked remarkably well considering all the work involved.Ticket sales are poor, so lets hope your 5 glasses gets ’em in.
    Murky b-cups

  2. Harry Zing Says:

    Verg good review guys; well written, funny and the exact opposite of what I thought! That being said, I am sure it has improved a lot since the (very early) performance I attended in Leicester and hope everybody who sees this show enjoys it more than I did!

    Like yourselves, I am a big fan of the movie but found the musical to take too many liberties (you didn’t mention the pointless lifting and carrying around of cast by the ‘magic sailors’ or the epic white pants – or have these been dropped?)

    Either way, critically I expect to see equal amounts of 5 star reviews as 1 star write-ups; it has to be said from the comments left after my review, loathed is beating loved 6-5 at the time of writing..

  3. Phil (a west end whinger) Says:

    No, quite correct, we forgot to mention the “pointless lifting” of the cast, which actually we found nicely done and très amusant.

    The pants have been dropped sadly. Ooo er missus!

  4. Harry Zing Says:

    Oh dear! No more awkward fornication whilst sliding down a ramp, then? The London audiences are missing out each and every night..

  5. Diana Says:

    When Meow Meow first clambered onto the stage, I leaned over to my twelve year-old daughter and whispered, “The Whingers are going to LOVE this.” I don’t mind that you guys are predictable. In fact, I have come to rely on you to bolster my opinions in nearly every case. This review is particularly satisfying on that score; I may well lose friends over my unqualified rave for the production…but I will still have you! Incidentally, regarding the orchestration, they not only “have a harp” as you say, but Legrand uses it to tell the story. It’s an inspired use of an instrument to carry the narrative, singing just as much and with as much meaning as the vocalists. Heaven!

    • Harry Zing Says:

      Any friends lost in a disagreement about how much you personally enjoyed a show aren’t worth losing, darling.

      My secret guilty pleasure was Eurobeat, one of the funniest, most ridiculous shows I’ve ever seen and pure naughtiness. Critically, it was awful and everyone else I know hated it.

      • Ed The Taxi Says:


        You have rocketed in my humble opinion, Eurobeat was indeed one of the best. Even Les Dennis was sublime. And the dry ice choking the Irish contestant, classic!

  6. Clair Says:

    I have tickets to see this at the end of the month, very excited about it as I have loved everything else I’ve ever seen Kneehigh do.

  7. graham civil Says:

    pure magic, from begining to end one of the best shows i have seen in my 60 years of theatregoing.joanna riding superb as usual,meow meow was wonderfull, as were the two young lovers who broke your heart. absolutley entertaining,i urge you to go and see it,if you have a heart and love musicals you will love it, enjoy

  8. Phil (a west end whinger) Says:

    “my 60 years of theatregoing”
    Congratulations graham civil you’ve even pipped me!

  9. Nick Says:

    Les parapluies de Cherbourg is the only movie I have ever walked out on, but I have to take your five star reviews seriously, or I may never have seen Clyborne Park or Showstoppers. Perhaps my outlook has changed over the last 45 years. I WILL do it.

  10. Dean Porter Says:

    Saw it yesterday and loved it! Tres bien! I want to live in the Garage Du Pont…

  11. N.R.S.L Says:

    So sad to say this….but it is unbelievably bad:
    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

  12. 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 screen 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 feeling Meow Meow has the ability to really crank up her 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 last night to ask MM if Legrand and Varda have been to see. Notes and a coach for MM and most of the cast, hopefully it will live long enough to sort out the enhancements. A tissue or two required, either to laugh or cry in all the wrong places.

  13. Lupo Says:

    What’s French for chalk and cheese? ‘Allo ‘Allo & Carry on Spying British send ups of Les Francais can be hysterical and Jacques Brelesque slit your wrists operatic dramas can plunge us into heartfelt tears, but the two just do not mix. Fin de l’histoire.

  14. Mike_S Says:

    Fabulous from beginning to end. I saw the movie in the 70’s & loved it. I recall the film being shown on Beeb 2 late at night & standing by the sitting room door thinking, I’ll just stay up and watch a little more, it looks intruiging. I finally sat down to watch after about 45 minutes.

    When I walked past the theatre on the way to my office after Christmas, I instantly remembered that night, even though I’d ntothought about it for years & had to see it. I was not disappointed.

    My wife had never heard of it but was willing to take my recommendation & cried like a baby in all the right places.

    Great stuff from Emma ( the director etc ) & Emma my wife – not the same person.

  15. 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 rein 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 the chronology signals entirely. 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.

  16. Minou Says:

    Really interesting to see how people either love or hate this show. Unfortunately I belong to the latter category, but I’m happy not everyone thought it was a complete waste of money and an amazing opportunity to recreate what I personally feel is the colourful, magic universe of the film.

  17. JohnnyFox Says:

    Sacre Bleu, Zut Alors, Quelle Horreur … pick your own Francophone diatribes, this is awful.

    And as for the choreography: Fosse septique

  18. garethjames Says:

    Well, I know I was at a different night, but perhaps I was at a different show? With you on Flare Path, without you on this. C’est la vie!

  19. It’s funny, isn’t it? I accept all those shortcomings but loved it in spite of them all and perhaps even because of some of them.

  20. JAMES Says:

    Last night’s performance of “Umbrellas” was perhaps the worst theatrical experience of my life. An empty theatre was made only bearable by the snorts and hoots of laughter from member of the audience as one lame cliche after another was presented to us.

    There’s none of the film’s panache. What were all those sailors doing? Why did we need a compere? And WHAT ON EARTH was the Aunt of Guy played by a sailor in drag? A touching relationship was turned into high camp. And why, when his Aunt had just died, did Guy take to her wheelchair?

    Now, if I were involved at Kneehigh, I’d scrap the show immediately and work on a production of Demy’s “Demoiselles de Rochefort”, which would lend itself beautifully to this sort of parody, high camp, Francophilia.

  21. Clair Says:

    We went to see it on Friday, and I loved it. It took me a little while to get into it at the beginning, because of the large number of fast scene changes and getting used to the singing style. But once I was ‘in the zone’ I was absolutely entranced. Laughed and cried, marvellous.

  22. […] show started previews. I couldn’t find any cheap seats. Finally, a first review appeared, a highly enthusiastic five wine glasses from the West End Whingers. Andrew even liked it so much he went again two nights later. I pencilled in a Friday two months […]

  23. […] and then having someone’s big head obscuring your view of the proceedings. The guys’ recent review of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg awarded the show a whopping 5 “glasses”. Not all of their readers were so enamoured, […]

  24. Rain Says:

    Do all musicals have to be powerful, logical, true to the original ? Or can there be a place for a romantic, smaller scale and fragile show ?This is a brave adaptation by a very creative team. Yes some situations are a bit bizarre, like the sailors who are there to make things going, to symbolize the outside world. They have to stay in the background, they are not there for frontstage choreography. The aunt is not the best choice, and Guys voice isn’t the best. But on the other hand it’s an emotional simple love story, and no grand decor or fancy choreography was needed. The public was indeed scarce when I saw the show, but Meow Meow managed to turn this big theatre to a jazzy club, and most (but not all) theatre goers did follow. She broke the ice (with some Allo Allo lines indeed) but showed her talents later. Anyone who has known love and the pain of love can only agree that Legrands music and this show manage to make us go back to these times of fragile young love …

    Let there be place for melancholy, for broken hearts, for things that could have been but never were. This was definitely a 5 star show for me (and yes, I speak French and I’ve seen the movie in original version at least 5 times). Go and see it, close your eyes from time to time and get hold of your partners hand …

  25. […] (unlike, say, that for The Drowsy Chaperone) and while they’ve been mixed (just see the comments to one blog that correctly points out this is a Marmite show: you’ll love it or h…), many reviews have been the sort producers happily quote in […]

  26. John Fraser Says:

    We saw this on Wednesday, 30 April. Both voted to leave at interval but a glass of wine and some rather cute audience members dressed in character persuaded us to stay. The second half was far better in all respects. The sailors did seem to be a little perplexed by their roles and the singing still was rather lame. However, treated this as a fun and quirky night. Sad to see that they will be closing early.

  27. theycallmechristophe Says:

    We got free tickets to yesterday’s matinee, and I’m afraid I didn’t enjoy myself. I wanted so desperately to enjoy myself, but had to admit I stopped caring at various points throughout the show. I loved Meow Meow, even managed to get half a bisou off her before she accused my friend of copping a feel, and I was very impressed with the quality of her French. Overall, I think the show is fundamentally broken as it’s not engaging enough and no amount of adorable little tricks (finger-walking and clever doll-work) were ever going to save it. Oh and we got disinfected by the “snow” at the end. A bit of a misstep overall, but I did find myself wanting to love it a lot more than I would’ve with most shows, possibly just because of the French connection. A real shame.

  28. Nicola Says:

    We went to see Umbrellas on 12 May and loved it! Yes, it’s different from your bog standard musical but that’s the joy of it. Innovative staging, poignant acting and beautiful singing. A treat!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: