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Writing for Us
A CurtainUp London London Review

"He's a wild bird and I think he makes clothes fly!" — Isabella
Cast (Photo: Specular)
I have a problem with plays about artists. They tend to either concentrate on the biographical detail, or worse, gossip, which may or may not add to our understanding of the visual art. Sometimes, it works like Nicholas Wright's Vincent in Brixton a play about the artist's time in Brixton London which barely touched on the paintings. Sometimes it doesn't, like Timberlake Wertenbaker's The Line about Edward Degas and his pupil Suzanne Valadon. To a lesser extent the same can apply to plays about musicians and writers but once we are in the realm of words, the dramas can be more meaningful.

James Phillips' play McQueen doesn't drag up the biographical, the drug use, the depression, further than Lee McQueen's (Alexander was his stage name) entry into the fashion business —, into the rag trade apprenticeship at 16 to a tailor on Saville Row. Instead the play is set on one night in a kind of dreamscape where McQueen (Stephen Wight) is visited by a girl Dahlia (Diana Agron, Glee's Quinn Fabray) who has been watching him from a tree near his house. The 2008 collection, "The Girl Who Lived in the Tree was named after her.

But how do you depict this 1990s anarchist and brilliant designer?

What I loved most about McQueen were the opening images to music": eight dancers dressed in his iconic collection "Asylum" their heads bandaged like helmets of gauze fabric, their bodies corseted with surgical corsets. The movement makes this a dance show and comes closest to conveying the artistry of this man born in Lewisham as his designs float away into the imagination like birds released.

Tracy-Ann Oberman plays McQueen's discoverer and patron, the fashion journalist Isabella Blow who was the milliner Philip Treacy's muse. On seeing his St Martin's School of Art MA collection in 1992, Issie wanted to buy every piece. Isabella committed suicide in 2007 by drinking weedkiller and there were times when Lee McQueen had been unkind to her, so her death weighed on him.

The journey with Dahlia takes us to Anderson and Sheppard on Saville Row where Lee learns to cut in a bespoke tailors. Lee mischievously tells us he made a jacket for Prince Charles with "I am a cunt" secretly sewn into the lining, support for Charles' abandoned wife and fashion patron, Diana.

We meet Mr Hitchcock the cutter (David Shaw-Parker) who tells us of the influence of the House of Worth, the first modern fashion designer who died in 1895. He says, "My shows are like my nightmares, my dreams." We see him cut a dress for Dahlia, putting this black creation together onstage and then photographing it.

With scenes linked with beautiful music and choreography from the elegant dancers/models, there is great beauty to this show. As Handel's Sarabande plays, the models are veiled and skeletons start to appear and Lee has to come to terms with his mother's cancer. He killed himself in 2010 between her death and her funeral.

Stephen Wight bears an uncanny resemblance to later photographs of McQueen and puts in a sterling performance but John Caird's production doesn't make the leap from imaginative artistry to the man, except in those images which we should all go and see in the fashion exhibitions dedicated to the remarkable work of Alexander McQueen.

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Written by James Phillips
Directed by John Caird

Starring: Stephen Wight, Diana Agron, Tracy-Ann Oberman
With: Laura Rees, David Shaw-Parker, Sophie Apollonia, Amber Doyle, George hill, Eloise Hymas, Jordan Kennedy, Rachel Louisa Maybank, James Revell, Carrie Willis
Production Designer: David Farley
Choreographer: Christopher Marney
Video Design: Timothy Bird
Lighting: David Howe
Sound: John Leonard
Running time: One hour 40 minutes without an interval
Box Office 0844 264 2140
Booking to 6th June 2015
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 19th May 2015 performance at the St James Theatre, 12 Palace Street, London SW1E 5JA (Rail/Tube: Victoria )
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