London’s first revival of Marguerite since its 2008 world premiere at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket is currently showing at the Tabard Theatre, Chiswick. Set in 1940s occupied Paris, Marguerite tells the story of a forty-year old popular singer and her affair with a young jazz pianist who will join the Resistance, whilst she is the mistress of a Nazi officer. Marguerite, inspired by La Dame aux Camélias, has a revised book by Alain Boublil and Guy Unsworth, who also directed this production.
The original plot has changed somewhat to suit a smaller cast and venue, but it flows seamlessly. In this production Marguerite regularly performs at the jazz club (in the original she has retired), with the concept of a cabaret show featuring throughout, framed by Max Dorey’s Parisian café set. This undeniably suits the bohemian feel of the 80-seat, smoky, dimly lit Tabard, which is situated above a pub; this gives the venue itself a cabaret feel. Specific seating is not allocated – sit where you like - and drinks are encouraged to be brought into the performance. Throughout the action a dull hum of the pub bustle is audible, as well as the honking horns of traffic passing by. “Jazz Time”, the catchiest and most upbeat song, is performed with genuine joy – slightly shaky vocals add to the gritty atmosphere of the whole piece.
This concept works deliciously, although it was disappointing that after all these aspects of the cabaret atmosphere, we, an audience willing to participate, were rejected in favour of canned laughter. Similarly, while the noise of the market crowd was provided with sound effects, the buzz of the pub outside more than sufficiently created the atmosphere authentically.
The violence seemed too harrowing for the small setting and as a result, melodramatic; when Marguerite’s beloved agent Georges (brilliant Mark Turnbull) gets thrown forward, blood-soaked, and when Armand dramatically shoots the policeman, it all gets too chaotic. However Marguerite’s death has been softened; in the original version she dies after being brutally attacked by a mob in her home, but in this revised production her cause of death is ambiguous as she slips away tenderly in Armand’s arms.
Yvette Robinson (The Woman in White, Evita) gave a powerhouse performance as Marguerite. It would be impossible not to compare Robinson’s Marguerite to Ruthie Henshall’s original portrayal; at times Robinson’s interpretation was indeed similar, but she made it her own through her vulnerability and soaring vocals. The best scene in the play was when she stood onstage alone and sung out every word of “The Face I See” with heart-wrenchingly stark sincerity. Clumsily cute Nadim Naaman’s Armand (originated by Julian Ovenden) had a school-boy nature that was endearingly playful.
The real star of the show is the score, by Legrand, Boublil and Kretzmer, which sounded as enchanting at the Tabard as it did at the Haymarket, if not more so; the piece belongs in an intimate space, and this quirky venue creates an atmosphere for it that feels charmingly authentic.