The Umbrellas of Cherbourg – Gielgud Theatre

In a world where film adaptations for stage often bring scorn, it is time to celebrate Kneehigh and their glorious re-invention not only of film to stage adaptations but the musical theatre genre.

Based on Michel Legrande and Jacques Demy’s 1964 classic French film, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg looks at life and love in the port. This isn’t your typical rose-tinted musical look at love however. This is real life and love hurts, people leave you but ultimately life goes on. Eighteen year old Genevieve falls in love with local mechanic Guy but, as she falls pregnant, Guy is called up for National Service and, by the time he returns, life has moved on.

It may sound dark and depressing but in Kneehigh’s hands it turns out to be an ode to love: lavish, lush and utterly compelling.

Legrande has re-orchestrated his own score for the stage and it’s not your traditional work. As the publicity material states this is a drama that just happens to be sung. Through sung throughout, motifs come and go but apart, from a couple of refrains, individual numbers flow one into another without break, the majority of the show being sung recitative.

For those more used to more conventional musicals it may take some acclimatisation but the technique does allow the story to shine through and provides a real emotional kick as the achingly beautiful theme of I Will Wait for You repeats during the evening.

The entire company work well, populating the town of Cherbourg with its transient inhabitants but the central performances excel.

Carly Bawden and Andrew Durand break the audience hearts with their painfully real doomed love. Sung beautifully Bawden’s rendition of the central theme in particular leaves a tear in the eye.

As Genevieve’s lonely mother, Madame Emery, Joanna Riding delivers a wonderfully detailed performance of a woman yearning for passion, on the verge of poverty but never refusing to compromise on style.

Holding the whole evening together and acting as tour guide for the audience is a deliciously vamp Meow Meow. Her role as Maitresse translates as teacher or guide and she certainly knows how to guide people around Cherbourg. A hybrid of Cabaret’s Sally Bowles and Emcee, she provides a tease for the sailors, a love interest when required and even something baser and darker in the shadows when the situation calls for it. It’s a clever device, prefacing the show with an induction for the audience into French language and culture.

As we’ve come to expect from Kneehigh, it all looks beautiful. Lez Brotherston’s designs provide visual feast after feast, evocatively lit by Malcolm Rippeth.

Emma Rice directs and choreographs with a cinematic flow that not only plays homage to the source material but creates its own unique world.

Musical theatre is often viewed as light and frothy but The Umbrellas of Cherbourg demonstrates that with some imagination the genre can offer a grown up look at life, love and loss. Here is a ravishing, beautiful and ingenious theatrical evening that will leave audiences collectively moved and with the soaring themes running though their heads for days to come.

C’est Magnifique!

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