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Phil Willmott travels through theatreland...

And catches two of the West End's newest musicals.


Two big West End shows opened in London last week, one dripping with class, one with it’s sites firmly set on the hen night crowd. Which one has staying power?

The new and sumptuous musical Marguerite at the Haymarket theatre comes from a very respectable family. It’s an adaptation of a play called The Lady of the Camellias which also inspired the opera La Traviata and umpteen films and plays about a prostitute who apparently betrays her lover to ensure his well being. In the case of the original (and Moulin Rouge), it's so that he can marry well. Whilst in Marguerite it's so that he won’t get killed by the Nazis.

Yes, those bad boys of musical theatre are back again. Are there any SS uniforms left for hire in London what with fake storm troopers cavorting through productions of Cabaret and The Sound of Music?

Specifically here we’re in World War II Paris, setting for Allo Allo and the real life horrors of horrific cruelty towards Jews, "sexual deviants" and any Parisians working to resist German invasion. In the opening song we watch the city's elite trying to persuade themselves that life as the French annex of Berlin isn’t so bad. Particularly as they have their friend Marguerite’s lover, a high ranking Nazi officer, to bend the rules for them. But he’s a grumpy old sour Croat and at Marguerite's 40th birthday she’s distracted by a young pianist who mercifully comes to play the musicals only up tempo number.

Sex in a garret follows, as it often does with penniless Parisian musicians, and the fading high class hooker’s life gets increasingly entwined in those of the muso and his mates until Nazi boyfriend has had enough and forces her to choose a life with him or death for piano boy.

You’ll be delighted to hear she does the right thing although, alas, when we Brits liberate Paris she’s torn apart by the mob for sleeping with the enemy. I’m not giving anything away here, the show opens with this image. In the end she dies in her young lovers arms, who’s luckily discovered her sacrifice.

The whole production is exquisitely designed, costumed, lit and pumped through with a ton of stage smoke. Ruthie Henshall in the title role has a really good stab at some of the acting bits and is beautifully glacial and honey voiced throughout – as befitting an emotionally battered old brass.

Maybe that’s the trouble, because for some reason it’s very difficult to care when she doesn’t seem that fussed, or maybe it’s all too glossy and dreamlike to seem real, or maybe the setting just seems too clichéd – because despite all the back lighting, dry ice and downbeat songs of yearning in the Gallic drizzle – it just doesn’t touch the heart.

A beautifully designed, achingly glamorous near miss.

Meanwhile at the Savoy Theatre the Take That tribute musical Never Forget explodes on to the stage with a tacky shamelessness that’s hard to resist.

No one’s pretending this is art. The “writers” have bolted some Take That hits on to a sub-Full Monty plot about a tribute band. The “acting” is shrill, the set cheap and functional. You can even buy a flashing cocktail glass on the way in!

Unmistakably choreographed by Karen Bruce, who knows how to get the pulse racing, the sound track to our 1990s is as infectious as ever and by the end the audience was on it’s feet roaring approval.

The regularly topless boys are cute, the villains are pure panto and of course the critics hated it – but I bet it’ll be around longer then Marguerite!


http://www.philwillmott.co.uk

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