Lautrec at the Shaftesbury Theatre
Lautrec, the new show about the life of the diminutive artist Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, is close to everyone's idea of what an enjoyable musical comedy should be. There are soaring ballads, lively dance numbers, elegantly-realised sets and strong vocal performances.
Yet somehow, you still feel Lautrec is lacking. Maybe it's the length of the show, or the fact that there are mediocre tunes in there amongst the gems, or that Shaun McKenna's book feels over-romanticised. Whatever, it's what makes Rob Bettinson's ambitious two-and-a-half hour production seem merely good, rather than great.
Right from the opening, you're aware of the visual splendour of the show. Heavy velvet drapes lift to show Henri seated with assorted Toulouse-Lautrec kinfolk at the high table of the family chateau. It's quite literally a high table too, being about eight feel tall, and waited on by servants on stilts. And it's this distinction, between high- and low-life that designer Robert Jones employs as the theme for the whole production.
The Lautrecs hold an elevated place in Parisian society, so they literally drop into the action deus ex machina-style on lifts, to sneer at Henri's friendship with the 'dregs of society'- circus freaks, reprobates and streetwalkers - and on-off romance with ex-prostitute Suzanne Valadon (the excellent Hannah Waddingham). Eventually, concerned at how Henri's actions could drag down the family name, they ask a cousin, Gabriel, to rescue him from the lower depths.
But it is to no avail. The crippled painter recognises that his sleazy milieu offers respite from the stifling gaze of the bourgeoisie, and eventually, Gabriel too discovers a penchant for whoring. Indeed, it's only the artist's dependence on absinthe (worsened by jealousy when Suzanne appears to have affections elsewhere) that takes him away from Montmartre, and into a madhouse.
I've long been a fan of Sévan Stephan's mellifluous vocals, and here in the title role the pint-sized performer doesn't disappoint. Jill Martin and Nigel Williams turn in some solid performances, too, as Henri's overbearing mother and father, while Peter Gallagher is a strong-voiced Aristide.
The best of Charles Aznavour's sentimental numbers (lyrics have been reworked by Dee Shipman) are Suzanne's heartfelt 'Look into My Eyes', the showstopper 'The Can-Can', and Aristide's lament, 'Love is a Pain'. But overall, it's not a dazzlingly memorable score.
In fact, in the end, you feel Lautrec the musical is a bit like Lautrec the artist: bawdy, energetic, and sometimes brilliant, but with a tendency to limp.