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A CurtainUp London Review
Martin Guerre

by David Heppell

Despite winning the 1997 Olivier Award for Best Musical and running for some 700 performances, Martin Guerre had a troubled West-End tenure. So it is with some question over its name that the Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg musical has another opportunity to make a positive mark on the public's collective consciousness - this time on a UK tour prior to its US premier. (Ed. Note: We'll probably catch it first in DC).

Messrs Boublil and Schonberg (with Les Miserables and Miss Saigon to their name) were not satisfied with the show when it closed in London, even with extensive change Starting at the West Yorkshire Playhouse last November, this is virtually a new musical and though some (small) sections of the London show do remain, the libretto has been extensively rewritten and a number of new songs have been added. From the programme, the casual observer would think that most of the score had been jettisoned completely, but this isn't the case. On the whole, songs have just been re-titled, repositioned and have had new lyrics foisted upon them.

The story, for those who do not know, is set in 16th century Artigat, in the sun-drenched meadows of medieval France, where a young Martin Guerre is forced into marriage with Bertrande to produce a Catholic heir. Shamed (and beaten) as a result of non-consummation of the wedlock, he abandons his home to fight for the Catholic cause, where he befriends Arnaud du Thil. Believing his friend dead after a battle, Arnaud goes to Artigat to tell Bertrande of her husband's death. However, having been mistaken for Martin by the villagers, and having fallen in love with Bertrande, he stays. Then, his association with the Protestants in the village forces a trial that brings his identity into question.

It is still strange that Arnaud can be so easily mistaken for Martin, especially as Bertrande notices immediately, and as they don't look that much alike. Despite this, though, the audience is neatly pulled into the deceit by the need of the village to believe in the man and the developing love between Arnaud and Bertrande.

There is a warm and rustic feel throughout the show and it has become a more intimate tale, focusing on the love story between the two leads. Whilst there are areas that are not as satisfactory as they might be (for example, the court scenes and the tragic finale), these are the exceptions. Generally the direction by Conall Morrison is smooth, assured and dramatic (particularly for the emotive "The Impostor Is Here").

As with the score, the choreography has been re-thought and only one scene of the "stomping" remains. The new choreography by David Bolger is infused throughout the show. It is superbly expressive and evokes the pastoral mood wonderfully well, especially in the ensemble pieces, notably the Wedding and Harvest Festival.

John Napier's set design is also suitably rustic, creating the provincial French ambience beautifully and contributing to the drama throughout - the backdrop is actually set on fire in the frenetic finale. Howard Harrison's lighting complements the set and is extremely effective in setting the tone. Never more so is this the case than in the breathtaking "How Many Tears."The golden sun streaming through the gaps in the wooden backdrop can only be described as a work of art. The costumes (by Andreane Neofiton) similarly add to the show's picturesque imagery.

The added songs maintain the rustic feel and have a largely positive impact on the rich, powerful and romantic score. Although no single song sticks in the memory, this does not detract from the show. There is a plethora of excellent songs here. To unfairly pick out two of the new songs -- "Live With Somebody You Love" and "How Many Tears" are superb. On a negative note, once a set of lyrics have been established in the mind, it becomes problematic to dislodge them sufficiently to feel at ease with a piece, especially when the new lyrics (again by Alain Boublil and Stephen Clark) tend to be more wordy, less fluid and occasionally clumsy. The standalone lines, for example, tend not to rhyme and tend to grate on the ear. Obviously these points will not be as big a problem to those not exposed to the London production(s) or the cast recording, but they will be a problem nonetheless. Ultimately, this baggage may be the most substantial hurdle for Martin Guerre to overcome. The cast is, unsurprisingly, of a very high standard. The three leads, Arnaud (Matthew Cammelle), Martin (Stephen Walker) and Bertrande (Joanna Riding) interact well, and the duets between them, and the one scene that unites all three, are among the best in the show. Maurice Clarke (Guillaume) is also wonderful as Bertrande's emotionally torn and jealous suitor and he sings "Justice Will Be Done" with the fierce intensity it deserves. Also worthy of note is Gareth Snook, playing Father Dominic, who skilfully encapsulates the religious zealotry of the role (he "feels the devil…all around us"). There are, in fact, only two minor question-marks in an ensemble that acquits itself admirably. The first of these is the difficult role of the fool, Benoit (Terry Kelly), who is not quite convincing enough. The other is Geoffrey Abbott, who is clearly too young for the role of the Judge (a fact that even a grey beard cannot hide). These are, however, minor quibbles.

It is difficult to take an objective view of a show that has had so many versions, but Martin Guerre is certainly on a musical par with its writers' previous shows. Overall, it has become a more consistent piece, it is well directed and atmospherically lit and is exquisite both to hear and watch. The show's biggest problem will be the preconceptions brought by people who have seen one of the (many) versions in London, or heard the cast album. After seeing this version twice, and having enjoyed it immeasurably more on the second occasion, one feels this may well be the limiting factor on the show's success, which is a shame as it is an excellent evening's entertainment.

This is a quality production with a quality cast - see it before they tinker with it again.
Check our DC page for its scheduled appearance in Washington)

March 1
Glasgow Kings Theatre (two weeks)

March 15 His Majestys Aberdeen (two weeks)

March 29 Theatre Royal Norwich (two weeks)

April 12 Festival Theatre Edinburgh
(two weeks - back to Scotland!)

April 26 Palace Theatre Manchester (three weeks)

May 17 Hippodrome Birmingham (two weeks)

May 31 Apollo Theatre Oxford (two weeks)

June 14 >tbc (two weeks)

June 28 Theatre Royal Nottingham (two weeks)

July 12Theatre Royal Plymouth (two weeks)

July 26 Hippodorme Bristol (two weeks)

The tour has now moved to Newcastle Theatre Royal for two weeks - further dates as follows:

March 1
Glasgow Kings Theatre (two weeks)

March 15
His Majestys Aberdeen (two weeks)

March 29
Theatre Royal Norwich (two weeks)

April 12
Festival Theatre Edinburgh
(two weeks - back to Scotland!)

April 26
Palace Theatre Manchester (three weeks)

May 17
Hippodrome Birmingham (two weeks)

May 31
Apollo Theatre Oxford (two weeks)

June 14
tbc (two weeks - maybe they'll get a holiday!)

June 28
Theatre Royal Nottingham (two weeks)

July 12
Theatre Royal Plymouth (two weeks)

July 26
Hippodrome Bristol (two weeks)

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© Elyse Sommer, April 1999