Review – Umbrellas of Cherbourg – Kneehigh Theatre at the Gielgud

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Given that Kneehigh produced my favorite show of 2008, Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter, I was thrilled to hear that they were coming back to the West End with another movie adaptation, this time of the wonderful Umbrellas of Cherbourg. This movie, a marshmallow sky vision of life in France made in 1963 and starring the radiant Catherine Deneuve, is a cult classic that I adore for its color saturated settings as much as its sweet, all-sung dialogue and heartbreaking story of broken dreams. What would Kneehigh bring to this story? How would they change it? Was the movie strong enough to handle being remade? I was so excited I considered going up to Leicester to see it, but travel costs made it impossible; I would just wait until it opened in London.

However, prices as announced were, again, too high for me, Ms. Cheap Seats. I wanted to have a good experience, but £19.50 would only get me a side seat in the second balcony! £39.50 my absolute tops for a show, would get me the middle third of that same balcony, with front of second balcony going for £49.50! It was just, too, too expensive. LastMinute.com had only one deal (that I missed out on) and it wasn’t coming up on the TKTS half priced ticket booth – what was I going to do? I didn’t want to shell out £30 to sit in the last row of the entire theater way in the back. I didn’t know if it was the expenses of being on the West End, but my Umbrellas trip was being rained on. It was scheduled to run for about six months, though, so I figured after the newness wore off, something would happen.

Weeks passed. The show started previews. I couldn’t find any cheap seats. Finally, a first review appeared, a highly enthusiastic five wine glasses from the West End Whingers. Andrew even liked it so much he went again two nights later. I pencilled in a Friday two months later when I thought I just might be able to go. Then the old media reviews started coming in, and while they weren’t really negative, they lacked enthusiasm. I bided my time. Then … bad news … Twitter started telling a tale of half, even two-thirds empty houses. Suddenly, I realized, I had better go before it was too late. No one can keep running at a loss for month after month. I convinced my friend Jonathan to go for the £29.50 front row day seats and we finally made it on a Wednesday, the last week of March.

It was true – the Gielgud was deserted. We wandered in a theater that barely seemed to have a show happening at all. The lights dimmed a bit and we had a female cabaret star, with teased black hair, fishnets, and a skirts slit in the back and on the thigh, flirting with several sailors and explaining what kind of place Cherbourg was and teaching us some practical French. I don’t really know why Meow Meow was in the show or what it was Kneehigh thought she was required for, but there she was, full of personality and fun but, well, distracting. Finally the curtain went up and there was our tiny Cherbourg, cute little models on stage. Then a boy and a girl puppet came out and had a cute romantic moment … then it all flew away and the musical really got down to it.

It’s a show … about a boy. And about a girl. And about being young, and falling in love. And about parents who don’t support you when you’re in love, and about passion, and excitement, and how boring work can be, and about enthusiasm and joy and optimism – promising to spend your life with someone and meaning it, not having enough “history” to be jaded. Carly Bawden was as lovely and self-possesed and youthful as I could have hoped for in a Genevieve – utterly believable as a girl with stars in her eyes who is clear about what she wants in life. Andrew Durand had just the right feel for Guy, utterly in love with his girl, not worried about the future because it’s all so clear when you’re in love. And there is singing, and there are girls in beautiful gem-colored dresses (my favorite being Cynthia Erivo with her fantastic voice), and there are bikes being ridden around on stage and slides to go down and simple sets and a live band and so much life, life, life on stage. Life is exciting, and it’s meant to be sung, and Umbrellas embraces this.

And … do you know what happens? I can’t bear to tell you. Umbrellas isn’t tragic in a Romeo and Juliet kind of way; like Genevieve’s mom says (I think), people only die of love in the movies. This show is heartbreaking because, well, it’s about two people learning how love just really isn’t enough, when it comes right down to it. But far be it from me to explain to you how, or why, but I do promise that at the end you will feel your heart breaking with all of the disappointments ever felt by the teenager inside you.

I was left pondering just what it was that had kept this musical from attracting the audience it deserved. I think some people just don’t like this style of musical, even though the music itself was wholly superior to Love Story and Ordinary Days (though the lyrics were rather simple, keeping with the original as I recall). My guess is this show might have been better if the Meow Meow bit were cut entirely and it was just a straight ninety minutes without an interval – given that it already starts at 8PM, this would be a natural move and help the show be more focused. Nothing could really be done about the electricity missing from the performers; they acted as if they were expecting bad news any minute, and it came on Friday, as the shows early closing (in May) hit them at the end of the night.

But I think there is more to this, and maybe it’s just not about the cost of the tickets, but more about misjudging the appetite for this story. As Tim Watson said to me after we finished up the April third edition of the As Yet Unnamed London Theater Podcast, the previous shows Kneehigh did on the West End were well loved movies with a strong British tradition; Umbrellas really is a cult favorite and very French. It’s a pity it didn’t succeed here, but it’s still a good show. Catch it while you can.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, March 30, 2011. Umbrellas continues through May 21st.)

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