The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

  • Our critic's rating:
    Tuesday, March 22, 2011
    Review by:
    Peter Brown

    Based on the film 'Les Parapluies de Cherbourg' directed by Jacques Demy, this new stage version by Kneehigh Theatre Company adopts a new character - the Maîtresse - but in other respects is faithful to the original, in particular because it still has the exceptionally moving and haunting music of Michel Legrand.

    This is a boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl story and vice versa. Guy works in a garage and falls for Geneviève whose mother owns an umbrella shop. When Guy is called-up to serve in the army in Algeria (this is 1957, by the way) the inevitable happens and Geneviève later discovers she is pregnant, and that leads to her marriage to a new-found family friend who is older, but richer. When Guy returns from Algeria he finds Geneviève has not only married but has left town. Returning to his old job at the garage, he's unable to regain his former enthusiasm for his work and declines into carousing in clubs and calls on the services of prostitutes. But, you'll be delighted to know, he's saved from destitution and solitude and all ends (relatively) happily.

    The action is pacey, zipping on at a considerable lick, thanks to fast scene changes which more or less merge into each other. The show is 'sung through' meaning that there is no dialogue except from the Maîtresse at the start of each act. Michel Legrand's jazzy, haunting score thus underpins the entire show. That raises issues for me because I don't believe that this format allows us to understand the characters as much as when dialogue is also included. And here is no exception as I found myself desperate to get a better view of the characters' traits and motives.

    Emma Rice not only directs, but is also responsible for both the adaptation as well as the choreography - an impressive achievement. And, in general, she's done a commendable job. But her introduction of a new character - the Maîtresse, a kind of compere who introduces the show and the second act after the interval - seems unnecessary, and her first appearance was overly long and rather drawn-out. Ms Rice has also introduced some puppets as Guy and Geneviève's children, and three dancers act as scene shifters, moving even the other characters in a semi-balletic style.

    In the acting, dancing and singing departments there's little, if anything, to grouch about. Meow Meow as the Maîtresse has a beautiful, haunting solo which turns out to be the most moving song of the show. Andrew Durand convinces as the returning lover, Guy, who descends into self-indulgence once he learns of Genevieve's marriage. Joanna Riding is Madame Emery, Geneviève's sympathetic mother and Carly Bowden is the naive Geneviève who opts for financial security rather than waiting for her first love to return.

    My main concern is just how sentimental the show is and whether it matters. Thanks to Michel Legrand's score, it certainly arouses feelings of sadness and tenderness, but I'm not sure that the rigid dictionary definition of sentimentality quite applies, ie that the feelings it evokes are necessarily exaggerated or self-indulgent - I suppose that really depends on your point of view.

    Those who love the 1964 film version will no doubt flock to see the show to relive the experience. But for those who have never seen the film it's still worth a visit just to experience Michel Legrand's fabulous score and sumptuous orchestrations.


    "It's all rather insipid and bitty - the film's colour is lost, and little is added."
    Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard

    "Watching the stage version is like seeing a Technicolor film rendered in black and white...A strangely prosaic attempt to capture the elusive poetry of the Demy original."
    Michael Billington for The Guardian

    "There is only one decent song amid the interminable recitative. Legrand’s I Will Wait for You is certainly a dreamily romantic melody, but a musical with only one great number seems to me to be short-changing its audience...I found this an impossible show to love. Even the poignant ending feels like too little, too late. "
    Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph

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