'Close-Up – The Twiggy Musical' review – a remarkable life story told with Swinging Sixties exuberance

Read our three-star review of Close-Up – The Twiggy Musical, written by Ben Elton, now in performances at the Menier Chocolate Factory to 18 November.

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

How did a skinny, working-class teenager from Neasden become a world-famous supermodel, recording artist, film star, Tony-nominated Broadway actress, and a dame? Lesley Hornby aka Twiggy’s story is a remarkable one, and it neatly encapsulates an era of seismic change, particularly a breaking down of class barriers.

You’ll certainly understand that from vibrant new bio-musical Close-Up, written and directed by Ben Elton. Elena Skye’s Twiggy narrates her extraordinary life in jokey, fourth wall-breaking fashion, from being teased at school for her stick-thin figure to groaning at her younger self’s naïve choices – especially where men and money are concerned.

However, Elton’s book also takes great pains to put everything in a wider sociopolitical context. The past is constantly relitigated with 21st-century language – so Twiggy being blamed for other girls developing eating disorders is labelled “body shaming.” Elton also lobs in terms like toxic masculinity, coercive control, gaslighting and the male gaze, plus constant lecturing on class.

It’s correct, even cheer-worthy, but it feels patronising. Twiggy entering into a relationship with her “Svengali” boyfriend and manager Justin de Villeneuve when she’s 15 and he’s 25 is clearly horrifying, particularly in the wake of the recent Russell Brand allegations. We don’t need Elton to spell out the warped power dynamics.

However, he makes effective use of archive footage, such as video of a horrendously smug Woody Allen trying (and failing) to make the teenage model look like an airhead. Elton also includes a trailer for Twiggy’s amusingly dreadful movie W, and clips of her performing – from Top of the Pops to Broadway, with Skye then picking up those numbers on stage.

Twiggy might not have an actual back catalogue, but she was entwined with the culture of her era – the “face of 1966” – so the jukebox musical format makes sense. The pop song choices are very literal though, like “Downtown” for going shopping downtown, or “Just One Look” as everyone falls in love with Twiggy’s image. Some have more emotional heft, such as Twiggy duetting with husband Michael Witney on “The Air That I Breathe.”

Skye anchors the show confidently, with cheeky, confiding Cockney narration and roof-raising vocals. Having that unexpectedly big voice emerge from Skye’s petite frame is a strong theatrical parallel for how Twiggy constantly surprised people.

Darren Day poignantly portrays Michael’s struggles with alcoholism, while Matt Corner is hilarious as the flamboyant chancer Justin, and Steven Serlin and Hannah-Jane Fox give sincere turns as Twiggy’s salt-of-the-earth parents. Fox is actually the standout of the cast, both a comic force and heartbreaking as Nell deals with postnatal depression, at a time when clueless doctors just prescribed ECT.

Aoife Dunne and Lauren Azania AJ King-Yombo are both excellent, but it’s a shame their characters – Twiggy’s only plus-size and Black pals, respectively – are relegated to supportive “best friend” roles. Especially in such an earnestly progressive production.

Jacob Fearey has fun with the groovy moves, like the twist and the mashed potato, as does Jonathan Lipman with the period costumes, from Swinging Sixties prints through to 1980s leg warmers. It all contributes to an exuberant and accessible show, but one that whistles through the greatest hits rather than matching the pioneering creative ambition of its subject.

Close-Up – The Twiggy Musical is at the Menier Chocolate Factory through 18 November. Book Close-Up – The Twiggy Musical tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: Close-Up – The Twiggy Musical (Photo by Manuel Harlan)

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