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A CurtainUp London Review
The story has been adapted effectively by Claude-Michel Schõnberg and Jonathan Kent, to that of a beautiful woman, Marguerite (Ruthie Henshall), living in German occupied Paris in the Second World War. She is the mistress of a German officer, Otto (Alexander Hanson) and lives under his protection with the crème of Parisian fashionable and German loving society. She falls in love with a younger man, Armand (Julian Ovenden), a jazz pianist. Armand's sister Annette (Annalene Beechey) is involved with another member of the jazz band, Lucien (Simon Thomas) who is Jewish. Otto's henchmen follow Marguerite, discover the liaison with Armand and torture Armand's sister. Marguerite intervenes on their behalf with Otto but is made to write a letter to Armand telling him she does not love him. As the Allies arrive in Paris, Marguerite is beaten up, stripped, her head shaved as were the French women who consorted with Germans. By the time Armand rescues her she is dying.
The story mostly works well but there is a problem with sympathy for our supposed heroine, Marguerite. Whereas the original "dame aux camélias" was a courtesan who died aged 20 of consumption, Marguerite has led an affluent and decadent life during the war. There are some who feel with the many dead and tortured in the Résistance and the number of French Jewry sent to the death camps, that those who collaborated with the Germans got what they deserved. This reality check gets in the way of our feelings about the tragedy of her death.
Unlike Les Mis, Marguerite is not sung through and I loved the sweeping orchestrations between scenes. Whilst we did not come out whistling any of the tunes, there are many pretty melodies. I particularly liked "Time Was When" which is sung by the jazz band players as they walk through Montmatre. Armand's jazz group and piano playing also bring contrasting style to the musical. The lyrics however are disappointingly prosaic, for example "I came at your call/The first word of love/Cuts deepest of all." and "To be where good men are/Where no-one wears a star." Ouch!
Ruthie Henshall is superb. She is meant to have been a singer pre-war and she is persuaded to sing "China Doll", one of her former show stopping songs. In her red velvet dress she stands out from the equally elegant Parisian party scene dressed in deep steel blues, navy, black or charcoal grey. They sing of their opportune smugness, "We're ok. Look at the queues. Look at us doing just fine." Julian Ovenden as Marguerite's young romantic interest too excels not just as a singer and actor but playing dazzling jazz piano. With Marguerite, Armand has the love duets "Waiting" and "Dreams Shining Dreams". Alexander Hanson too pleased me with his shock haired German officer with his predilection and obsession with his pretty "whore" and the three way song Otto sings with Armand and Marguerite is "Intoxication" exploring the triangle. I liked too his angry tirade in "I Hate the Very Thought of Women". There is little choreography other than in the ball room scenes.
The sets are well delivered. Parisian palatial apartments off the Champs Elysées I especially liked those Parisian street café scenes where the tress have been pollarded, severely pruned and which sprout leaves later in the year. The whole production has the feel of being well planned and beautifully designed but the music is disappointing. This is not to say that further familiarity with the melodies may allow them to grow into lovely and memorable tunes. Remember that the instantly tuneful success of "Les Mis" is in the repetition of the musical themes so that each tune has been played several times in the course of the show.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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