If you are a die-hard fan of Alexander McQueen, or high fashion in general, you are going to absolutely love James Phillips' brand new play, currently being staged in a limited engagement at the St. James Theatre... But what about the rest of us? What about those of us who wouldn't know their Givenchys from their Guccis? The biggest challenge with McQueen was always going to be the question - can this play reach a wider audience than high fashion aficionados?
I must confess I was definitely well outside of my comfort zone at the opening night of McQueen. (An alarmingly high proportion of my clothes has survived since the 90s!... Well, if the glove [still] fits, as they say...) And as I left the theatre, I wasn't absolutely certain of the play's intention. Was it simply a tribute to the fashion visionary? Was it designed to make me empathise with a man whose life came so tragically to an early end? Was I meant to understand the reasons which led to his ultimate decision? Or was it merely a cathartic device?
At one point in the play, McQueen (played by a wonderfully naturalistic and at times deeply moving Stephen Wight) delivers the line: "...when they were turning me into a brand." Ironically, it felt repeatedly that this piece of theatre was, in fact, a continuation of that 'brand,' five years after Lee Alexander McQueen's death.
Part fact, part fiction, the play's opening sets the tone for the rest of the night. We are thrown headfirst into the dark, creative, fantasy world of McQueen. Ensemble members dressed as Mannequin-esque models catwalk erratically across the stage, as if they have just left the set of a Lady Gaga (or even Marilyn Manson) music video. Pieces of fashionable inventions are scattered evenly about and fast-paced video projections disorientate us. All these motifs run throughout the production, as the mannequin dancers creepily appear and re-appear intermittently and also offer up wild, eccentric characters for show, such as the red-headed twins in ballet shoes. Director John Caird has done an excellent job here in merging theatre with an archetype of an Alexander McQueen collection fashion show.
The plot revolves around one night where two supposed strangers meet under strange circumstances and embark on a soul-searching evening, which will offer glimpses into McQueen's psyche, his struggles and his creative genius. The female protagonist comes in the form of mysterious American girl Dahlia, portrayed by Dianna Agron (who is widely known as all-singing, all-dancing cheerleader Quinn Fabray on the hits TV series 'Glee'). Dahlia breaks into McQueen's warehouse as she wants a dress and comes face to face with the designer himself. Agron's character and her performance are both oddly alienating. It is only when Dahlia's true objective is revealed much later in the piece that Agron is able to demonstrate her impressive talents as a performer.
Dahlia, along with the other supporting roles of Isabella Blow (in a post-death dream sequence), journalist Arabella and former tailoring mentor Mr. Hitchcock, are effective devices designed to give us insight into McQueen's character. All are played superbly by Tracy-Ann Oberman, Laura Rees and David Shaw-Parker, respectively. However, although I was able to grasp an idea of the protagonist's genius as a result of this, I was strangely left feeling cold by it. Perhaps an opportunity was missed for a real emotional connection with someone who we all know ended up committing suicide?
The universal message of "we have to make the most of the time that we still have left" feels somewhat like an uneasy fit to this play, when dealing with the notion of suicide, rather than a terminal illness, for example.
I suspect McQueen might only appeal to those who still mourn him and long for a dose of high fashion nostalgia. I would be surprised if the play would have as much impact on the average theatregoer, if any at all. But I hope I may be proven wrong.
"It is hard to work out precisely what James Phillips’s study of the fashion designer Alexander McQueen is meant to be...However you choose to define it, the show certainly doesn’t offer much in the way of drama."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Glee star Dianna Agron is not good, I’m afraid. Her delivery is glib yet slow - I never believe the quick-fire rapport with McQueen...this performance is more blunt than a pair of old sewing scissors; it simply doesn't cut it."
Holly Williams for The Independent
"Unfortunately this pretentious, unshapely piece feels like something of a fashion faux pas."
Ben Lawrence for The Telegraph