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Jean Paul Gaultier's Fashion Freak Show at the Roundhouse – review

The catwalk remains open until 28 August

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Jean Paul Gaultier's Fashion Freak Show
© Mark Senior

Pitched somewhere between musical revue, modern dance and outrageous runway fashion show, this face-melting extravaganza is an exhilarating exercise in nostalgia filtered through state-of-the-art live performance technology. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense but it's utterly irresistible and captures the unique mix of weirdness, flamboyance and kindness at the heart of Jean Paul Gaultier.

Even if you're not a fashionista, chances are you'll be familiar with Gaultier from his appearances on 1990s TV's Eurotrash (his former co-presenter from that show, Antoine de Caunes, even makes a pre-filmed appearance at one point, improbably dressed as the Queen because…well, why not…) or the ubiquitous advertisements for his fragrances. That same TV ad aesthetic of impossibly fit people in chocolate box beautiful but vaguely unsettling milieus is the overriding visual impression here too, in a show that begins with disco-dancing teddy bears in conical bras and ends with a heart-stopping parade of Gaultier's greatest couture hits.

Through a bewildering but consistently entertaining melange of stunning filmed imagery (featuring such luminaries as Catherine Deneuve, trailblazer Amanda Lear and Pedro Almodovar's muse Rossy de Palma), sharp comedy (MC Anouk Vinale does a wonderfully sour Anna Wintour), burlesque, and frequently enthralling dance (choreography by Marion Motin), Gaultier and co-creator Tonie Marshall's show tells the story, in a more or less linear fashion, of Jean Paul's journey from unconventional child to international style icon. The biographical elements are interspersed with gorgeous flights of fancy from the kookie to the erotic to the downright bizarre. I watched much of it with a sappy grin plastered across my face, and the banging soundtrack makes it almost impossible to keep still.

Madonna leaves her mark too, as do several other pop music greats: as an exercise in name-dropping, this visual and aural feast is pretty much unparalleled. If ultimately it feels more suited to Vegas than a theatre space, the combination of haute couture campery and astonishing performance skill (the apparently boneless Beau Sargent's aerial work is breathtaking, and vocalist Demi Mondaine probably sings better than some of the people whose work she's borrowing) renders most critical faculties redundant.

There are a few moments that don't fully ignite but not enough to dampen a red hot hit show that sweeps the audience along on a tidal wave of excitement, opulence and sheer fabulousness. It was long before the interval that the question in my head went from "yes, but is it theatre?" to "how many times can I come back and experience this thing before it closes?" It's a blast.