The Nazis are back in town. Or rather there's a new group of them in town, because with Cabaret and The Sound of Music still running, there's already an established group of Nazi characters on the West End stage.
It often seems that we English can't shake off our obsession with the Second World War and the Nazis in particular. Some people would say that is no bad thing - better to remember the horrific events of that era and the horrendous deeds perpetrated by the Nazis lest we fall unconsciously into a new dark age of political repression, torture and mass murder. That's a good point, because history provides lessons and warnings that shouldn't be ignored. But I wonder how young Germans feel about continually seeing their forebears in documentaries, dramas, and musicals. It must often seem to them as though they are bearing some of the responsibility for events that took place before they were even conceived.
This production is not so much English inspired, as French. The book for 'Marguerite' was written by the same team that gave us 'Les Miserables' (with an additional credit for director Jonathan Kent as part of the writing team) but the music here is by Michel Legrand. And the show is set in Nazi-occupied Paris. So, in a very real sense it is not an English musical at all, though it's significant that it's having its world premiere in London. The prospect of sitting through yet another production about Nazis didn't exactly fill me with overwhelming enthusiasm. But as soon as the lights dimmed and the orchestra struck up, there was a tangible sense that this was to be something very different. And so it proves to be.
Although the Nazis are a significant part of the plot, they're not really the focus of it. Essentially the show is a love story loosely based on the life of a French courtesan called Marie Duplessis, but brought up-to-date and amended to fit into German-occupied Paris of the early 1940s by making the central character a collaborator.
Marguerite enjoys a lavish lifestyle because her lover is a German general. The show begins with Marguerite celebrating her 40th birthday in the company of other Parisians who largely feed off the grudging largesse of the Germans. But Marguerite's glitzy life is threatened when she falls for a young pianist hired to play at her party. Though Marguerite initially avoids a risky entanglement outside the confines of her relationshop with the general, she falls victim to passion and her desire for true love, and the consequences are inevitable.
'Marguerite' has the same kind of atmosphere and ingredients as the excellent 'Sunday In The Park With George'. There's a relatively small cast, the music is brilliantly arranged and faultlessly performed by the orchestra and the songs are exceptionally well sung. Paul Brown's hugely inventive set has walls sliding and opening to create new scenes from a glamorous mirrored apartment interior. The functionality of the design keeps the whole show moving at a cracking pace, without the feeling that we're being dominated by gadgetry.
If you were looking for someone to write the score for a love story, you'd be hard pressed to find someone better than Michel Legrand. His hauntingly melodic ballads are capable of melting the stoniest of hearts, and have helped him garner a bunch of awards including Oscars. But there also up-beat numbers, and a fine jazz number too. Several numbers in the musical are incredibly moving, and I would expect a number of them, such as 'China Doll' and 'The Face I See' to become standards in the not-too-distant future.
If the music isn't enough on its own to induce a state closely approximating to ecstasy, the company singing is uniformly top-notch quality. Both Ruthie Henshall (Marguerite) and Julian Ovenden (Armand) have extremely fine voices, and Ovenden's is also extremely powerful. The two of them produce some gorgeous duets, but there's good support all round, especially from Gay Soper as the Chanteuse.
Jonathan Kent's exceptionally stylish and polished production isn't really so much about the Nazis, nor is it really about romantic love, though both those elements add to the power of the piece. The show is basically about whether we can forgive those who make the wrong decision in intolerable situations whether through weakness, poverty, low self-esteem or whatever. In effect, the musical asks us to consider what society should do with those who collaborate with the enemy. It may seem an easy question to answer, but Kent's production tries to show us that it's not so straightforward or simple.
When a musical involves a love story, there's always a danger that it will be labelled as sentimental or romantic twaddle. And it would be hard not to agree that there is a glimmer of sentimentality in the show. However, the love story itself isn't soppy because it's set against the background of the dangerous times, including the persecution of French Jews.
The is a brilliantly executed show with a poignant story that examines contentious issues and exceptionally moving music. If it doesn't win a clutch of awards by the end of the year, I'll be amazed. And just to show that I'm not over-egging the pudding, I leave (almost) the last word to a woman standing next to me at the interval: 'Wonderful', she said to her friends when asked what she thought about it. And so it is. Wonderful and unmissable.
What the popular press had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Engaging production...The musical, both its book and music, did not greatly captivate me, but I was impressed by the way it raises serious moral questions. " CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "It's a serious disappointment...There's no real tension in the writing, while the characterisation is flaccid in the extreme." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, " Decent, enjoyable but not exactly thrilling show." PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, "Fluent, strikingly designed production...a compelling, if flawed, new work." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "If you can accept a musical with a less-than-sympathetic heroine, then there are things to savour...Fast-moving production."