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We have several musicals on French themes planned for London this year. Lautrec is the first of them to open, soon to be followed by Notre Dame de Paris in May and Napoleon, The Musical in September.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec's story has the makings of the interesting musical with some colourful characters. The child of an aristocratic family he was born physically frail and after a riding accident at age 14, his legs failed to grow and his height stayed at a diminutive 4 feet 11 inches. When I visited the Lautrec country home in the Tarn area of Southern France a few years ago, I was moved by letters from his mother describing her son's delicate condition and how she blamed herself for falling in love with her cousin. In the French capital, away from his protective mother, Henri studied painting and his pictures depict the demi-monde of Paris in the Naughty Nineties, among whom he felt at home. His aristocratic family were disturbed by the scandal of how he lived, frequenting nightclubs and brothels in Montmatre.
Charles Aznavour's music is pleasant enough and although it could be said to be derivative, there are at least three memorable songs. The drinking song, "Let's Drink" is great fun and has the complete cast of eccentric Parisians joining in. However the English translation of Aznavour's libretto features some annoyingly trite, rhyming couplets, with often as few as six syllables to a line, the rhyme being more important than any meaning ….."Painting shouts the truth like a scream
Director Rob Bettinson has given us a visually faultless Lautrec. The characters from Lautrec's paintings come to life, Aristide Bruant with his black cape, black hat and red scarf straight off the posters, Valentin in a skinny orange suit with a tall orange topper, La Goulue, "the gluttoness", whores and singers, a contortionist and a juggler. Robert Jones' costumes are authentic, his sets colourfully dominated by huge velvet swags and swathes with fringing and tassels with singers descend on a tasselled rope or swing on platform trapezes. The Lautrec family are clad in dark red and black respectability whereas in Paris there is a profusion of colour and Victorian undergarments.
The choreographer gives us two dance numbers based on the Can Can which was very, very naughty because the girls wore two piece drawers which were drawn onto each leg, tied round the waist, but with no central gusset. Sorry to give you the wrong idea … that was how they used to do the Can Can! There is the almost obligatory sexually explicit dance sequence, as the brothel workers strip down to their corsets and broiderie anglaise and sing "Souvenirs of Second Best", a pretty song about how men have let them down.
Sévan Stephan plays the painter, clear of diction and with a good voice. At 5 feet 3 inches he looks the part and I think most of the rest of the cast have been chosen with height in mind, so that they tower over him. Hannah Waddingham, the lovely daughter of two opera singers, plays Lautrec's girlfriend, an artist's model who posed for Degas, Renoir and Van Gogh, Suzanne Valadon. Suzanne's pretty love song "Look into my Eyes" was the best received of the show. Peter Gallagher (Aristide Bruant) has a deep, powerfully resonating voice and great stage presence. Jill Martin as Henri's mother fusses around her son convincingly.
The problem with the show is that the sleaze and the seemy side of Parisan life are treated as a joke. Even the nightmare scene in the asylum is more fun than fright. Lautrec did not die of his physical weakness but of syphilis as a result of his very debauched lifestyle. While Lautrec has enough redeeming features so that there are many worse ways of spending an evening in London. However, the factors which create a successful musical are simply not there . . . C'est la vie!
Music and Lyrics by Charles Aznavour
Directed by Rob Bettinson
Book by Shaun McKenna
English Lyrics by Dee Shipman
With: Sévan Stephan, Hannah Waddingham, Martin Fisher, Peter Gallagher, Jill Martin, Nigel Williams, David Langham, Sadie Nine, Alexandre Delamere, Daniela Zocchi, Wendy Lee Taylor, Richard Gauntlett, George Harman, Andreas Johnson, Thomas Redman, Roz McCutcheon, Luke Newberry, Adam Rixson, Reece Moore. Ensemble: Marlain Angelides, Laurie Brett, Jason Davies, Jon Emmanuel, Candice Evans, Nic Greenshields, Matthew Hudson, Kim Ismay, Rachel Izen, Andrew McCrae, Denise Ogilivie, Janet Parkinson, Wayne Perrey, Derek Richards, Wendy Schoeman, David Shelmerdine, Fiona Watkins.
Set Design: Robert Jones
Lighting Design: Peter Mumford
Sound Design: Martin Levan
Choreography: Quinny Sacks
Running time: Two hours 40 minutes with an interval
The Shaftesbury Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London WC2
Box Office: 020 7379 5815
Booking to July 8th 2000
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 10th April 2000 performance at the Shaftesbury Theatre