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”.