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A CurtainUp London London Review
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

Don't tell me why his absence is so hard to bear. — Genevieve
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
Andrew Durand as Guy and Carly Bawden as Genevieve (Photo: Steve Tanner)
After the success in the West End and on Broadway of Kneehigh's Brief Encounter, director Emma Rice tries to recreate the magic with a stage version of the sung through French film Les Parapluies de Cherbourg. There is no umbrella description for this show; it will polarise opinion; you will either adore it or hate it!

Of course no interpretation by Emma Rice and Kneehigh Theatre will be without their idiosyncratic touches. So the bittersweet love story between Guy (Andrew Durand), a motor mechanic and Genevieve (Carly Bawden), the daughter of an umbrella seller is framed by introductory scenes from a French dominatrix called "Maitresse" played by the cabaret star Meow, Meow. Her entrance is made clambering over those seated in the front rows of the stalls and she greets many of the audience in traditional French manner with a kiss on both cheeks. Three handsome, athletic dancing matelots or French sailors in striped T shirts and red kerchiefs accompany her saucy and witty introduction to all things French especially l'Amour. Apparently Cherbourg is the equivalent of the English port of Hull.

Lez Brotherston's set is very good with its miniature Cherbourg street complete with the Garage du Port where Guy works and the hotel and lots of neon lighting signs for the shop front and the cafés and fairground rides. What I liked less was the matelots picking up the lovers and placing them elsewhere on the stage as if they were puppets manipulated by some higher deity. A female chorus of girls in 1960s dresses, headscarves tied round the chin and Audrey Hepburn sunglasses self consciously sit behind the action or drape themselves on the piano at stage front left.

The story is faithful to the 1964 film. Genevieve, just 17, falls for 20 year old Guy and their relationship is consummated as he is called up into the French army to fight in Algeria. Genevieve's mother Madame Emery (Joanna Riding), debt ridden with an unprofitable shop, doesn't want Genevieve to be romantically involved at such a young age. After Guy has left, Genevieve finds that she is pregnant but there is a communication breakdown when letters do not get through from Algeria and Genevieve, thinking herself abandoned is persuaded to marry an older rich jeweller, Roland Cassard (Dominic Marsh). When Guy returns Genevieve has moved away and at first he is heartbroken, gets drunk, visits a prostiutute but then finds love with his aunt's nurse, Madeleine (Cynthis Erivo). Guy marries her and they have a son, Francois. Years later Genevieve comes to Guy's garage with their daughter Francoise.

Curiously Guy's aunt is played by Dominic Marsh in a curly wig but it's never clear why a man is taking this role. Although the atmosphere is very French and Michel Legrand's pretty theme tune "I Will Wait For You" is repeated to the point where we can hum it on the way out, there seems neither charm nor chemistry between the two young lovers. When they first precariously make love on a fairground sliding chute I was embarrassed for them rather than romantically entranced. Joanna Riding, looking a little like Agnes Moorhead, sparkles as the shop owner and she seems truly disappointed when the rich jeweller comes back for her daughter rather than herself. Puppets are wheeled into play as the children in the final scene. The introduction and interval work from Meow Meow, played in front of sliding metal shutters with Chebourg painted in old style lettering, was outstanding and I loved her torch song "Sur Toi" from another Legrand film.

Not having seen the film for several decades I have the hazy impression that this would work better in French. Somehow the zany silliness of Kneehigh's interpretation does not work with the seriousness of French romance. Maybe Kneehigh should have tackled M. Hulot's Holiday instead?

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The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
Composer Michel Legrand
Author: Jacques Demy
Director, Adaptor and Choreographer: Emma Rice
English Lyrics Translation: Sheldon Harnick
ranslation in association with Charles Burr
"Sans Toi" Lyrics: Agnes Varda

Starring: Meow Meow, Joanna Riding, Carly Bawden, Andrew Durand, Dominic Marsh, Cynthia Erivo
With: Laura Brydon, Gareth Charlton, Chris Jenkins, Aki Omoshaybi, Matt Wilman
Set and Costumes: Lez Brotherston
Orchestrations and Vocal Arrangements: Michel Legrand
Maitresses's Inerludes: Carl Grose
Musical Director: Nigel Lilley
Sound Design and Recorded Music Remixing: Simon Baker
Video and Projections Design: Spooky
Lighting: Malcolm Rippeth
Running time: Two hours 10 minutes including one interval
Box Office: 0844 482 5130
Booking to 1st October 2011 --changed to earlier 5/21/11 closing
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 22nd March 2011 performance at The Gielgud, Shaftesbury Avenue, London W1V 8AR (Tube: Piccadilly Circus)

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