The first time a stage version of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Jacques Demy and Michel Legrand’s beautiful 1964 movie, appeared in the West End (in 1980), with these same lyrics by Fiddler on the Roof writer Sheldon Harnick, it lasted twelve performances and disappeared without trace.
I feared the worst, having recently seen the new print of a favourite film. But I reckoned without Kneehigh and director Emma Rice.
After a disastrous first 15 minutes of drift, in which the cabaret artiste known as Meow Meow is allowed to faff around “bon soir”-ing and insisting she’s a “mâitresse not a mattress,” and an awkward sequence of puppetry and ground level miniature scene-setting (invisible in most of the stalls), things pick up splendidly.
The story of young love in an umbrella shop, interrupted by the garage boy’s posting to the Algerian War, is recycled so as to bring back the film for those who love it - that is, I imagine, everyone who’s seen it - without spoiling memories by crass imitation.
Guy and Geneviѐve are almost ordinary, not particularly sexy - who could approximate to that blonde goddess of the boulevards, Catherine Deneuve? - but sweet and touching in the gawky, almost geeky, performances of Andrew Durand and Carly Bawden.
The story is played swiftly and sung drily, Legrand’s elegant score of 1960s jazz and bebop weaving in and out of the scenes and gathering for the great numbers (nothing is quite “stand alone”), especially “I Will Wait For You” which returns again and again without palling.
I was slightly irritated at the interval but won over totally in the much better second half: though we more or less lose Joanna Riding’s maternal Madame Emery, Meow Meow is properly integrated (and with a superb torch song, “Sans Toi”), especially in a great brothel scene when Guy is on the skids. The pregnant Geneviѐve has married the diamond dealer (excellently done by Dominic Marsh) whom we first thought was Madame’s suitor.
The musicians, led by Nigel Lilley on keyboards at the edge of the stage, are spread through Lez Brotherston’s mobile playground/harbour setting, the action buffed and decorated by three strapping matelots and a girl trio in dark glasses. The chance reunion in the garage at Christmas time is beautifully done, all parties reconciled to the outcome and mature in acknowledging what happened.
On their last West End outing, Kneehigh threw the theatre at Noël Coward’s Brief Encounter and produced a mixed media sensation. The approach here is quieter, more low-tech and - if they can do something about that first “mauvais quart d’heure” - just as seductive.