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Review Round-up: Umbrellas Open for Kneehigh

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Based on the 1964 film by Jaques Demy, with a score by Grammy and Oscar-winning composer Michel Legrand Kneenigh Theatre's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg opened last night (23 March, previews from 5 March) at the Gielgud Theatre following a limited run at Leicester's Curve.

Set in 1957 in the French port of Cherbourg, the musical is adapted and directed by Emma Rice with a translation by Sheldon Harnick. The cast includes two-time Olivier Award-winner Joanna Riding, cabaret star Meow Meow and romantic leads Carly Bawden and Andrew Durand.

The production is currently booking for a limited run at the Gielgud Theatre until 1 October 2011.

Michael Coveney

"The first time a stage version of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg... appeared in the West End (in 1980)... it lasted twelve performances and disappeared without trace ... 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... things pick up splendidly ... Guy and Geneviѐve are almost ordinary, not particularly sexy... but sweet and touching in the gawky, almost geeky, performances of Andrew Durand and Carly Bawden ... 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 ... Meow Meow is properly integrated (and with a superb torch song, “Sans Toi”) ... 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 ... 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."

Michael Billington

"Suspiciously thin would be my verdict on this stage version adapted and directed by Emma Rice ... The Michel Legrand score still offers its fitful pleasures, and the bittersweet ending is retained; but it seems an oddly gratuitous translation of a highly successful film into theatrical terms ... Lest we miss the fact this is an essentially French story, Rice has also imported a roguish compere in the shape of a cabaret diva called Meow Meow, and adds a chorus of matelots in striped vests. I suppose we should consider ourselves lucky she stopped short of an itinerant onion seller ... You are left with a show that, with the exception of 'I Will Wait for You', seems strangely lacking in musical or dramatic highlights ... The performances themselves are fine. Carly Bawden conveys Genevieve's innocence, Andrew Durand shows Guy plausibly embittered by both the war and his lover's desertion, and Joanna Riding as Genevieve's mum has the right flighty desperation. Nigel Lilley's musical direction is tireless. And there are one or two striking images, such as that of a lovelorn Guy marooned in the midst of the Algerian conflict. But when you recall how ingeniously Kneehigh interwove film and live action in Brief Encounter, this seems a strangely prosaic attempt to capture the elusive poetry of the Demy original."

Henry Hitchings
Evening Standard

"For the Cornish company Kneehigh's version of this classic weepie, Legrand has re-orchestrated his score ... The main plot is sung-through; there aren't choruses but instead, as in the film, a wealth of sung dialogue. It's a fine achievement by Legrand, but not truly engaging. The lyrics, in an old and for present purposes none too apt translation by Sheldon Harnick, feel banal. Carly Bawden brings a sweet purity to Geneviève. But Joanna Riding seems underused as her mother, and Andrew Durand's Guy is somewhat stiff. Lez Brotherston's designs are inventive, and there are imaginative touches from director Emma Rice. Yet even these are overstretched. The passing of time is shown by minor characters holding up handkerchiefs or dishcloths with captions stitched on to them. Initially this is enchanting, but the conceit becomes predictable. And, more problematically, some of the action is hard to see, as if designed for a very different kind of space. It's all rather insipid and bitty - the film's colour is lost, and little is added. At the outset Lola tells off the audience for being typically English and keeping our feelings under out bowler hats. But there's not much here to stir the emotions."

David Benedict

"Closer to opera than traditional tuner, (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) features not one word of spoken dialogue: Everything is sung. It is, to say the least, an acquired taste, but Demy's eye-popping use of super-saturated Eastmancolor and Michel Legrand's haunting score helped a lot of people acquire it ... Such non-naturalism is meat and drink to helmer-adapter Emma Rice. Kneehigh's trademark tearing down of the fourth wall and winningly rough-and-ready theatricality held audiences in thrall in previous productions like Tristan and Yseult. But Rice's best work has always been tied to strong script and storytelling. Umbrellas has neither ... Oddly, Rice doesn't appear to have adjusted the lyrics first heard in Sheldon Harnick's translation ... Hearing a cast using English accents to sing such American phrases as "I guess" and "trimming the tree" is jarring ... Faced with such self-conscious material, the cast resorts to differing styles. Joanna Riding brings Julie Andrews-esque vowels, diction and precision to Genevieve's sensible mother. As Genevieve, Carly Bawden glides about emulating the breathy innocence of Catherine Deneuve, but Andrew Durand as her lover looks stranded, as if working in a language he doesn't quite understand. The higher his voice goes, the stronger it is, but as he stares fixedly out at the auditorium, you wish he would relax into the role ... Orchestrally, the show couldn't be better. Musical director Nigel Lilley, onstage throughout ramping up the cabaret mood, marshals a band of seven that sounds far bigger ... Lilley and sound designer Simon Baker ensure vocals are never swamped ... If the rest of the show had that controlled flair, it would be a winner. Lez Brotherston supplies chirpily atmospheric design... but Rice's helming swiftly hits overkill as it tries everything from puppetwork and cross-gender casting to secondhand choreography. The result feels scattershot, and despite moments of beauty, with no tension, there's little emotional release."

Libby Purves
The Times

"After Kneehigh’s fabulous Brief Encounter I expected inventive, fearless playfulness: new life springing from an old film in energetic theatrical form. Deprived of close-up and long-shot, theatre must convey emotion in different ways. Here it falters. In the first act, neatly choreographed matelots rearrange not only props but people, and it is hard to feel the intimacy of lovers when they are being whisked from bollard to bollard. It is a relief when later Geneviève’s mother (Joanna Riding) crossly motions the helpful seafarers away and exits unaided. Cynthia Erivo is touching as the nurse who longs for Guy, but I have no idea why Aunt Elise is a bloke. All the singers — except Bawden — need a more generous sound balance: the eight-piece band often made the score intrusive. But Lez Brotherston's set is enchanting, with doll's-house streets, gantries and a long ramp to slither down. Young love is consummated on it too, which is a bit worrying. Dangerous, I'd say, to unbutton at the top of what only moments before proved to be quite a fast slide. The fact that this crossed my mind indicates a certain emotional malfunction. Must be my bowler 'at."

Quentin Letts
Daily Mail

"Nostalgia drives The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, a musical with not much more than one tune and a thin plot ... If this production fails to match the film's success it will be because live theatre is less evocative of rain-spattered rejection and because the romantic leads here, Carly Bawden and Andrew Durand, are fearfully unsexy ... Meow Meow has a reasonable voice but her lines are lamentable. I had no idea afterwards who or what this Maitresse was meant to be. Durand's clear tenor repeatedly has trouble reaching lower notes and he looks no more French than the late Sir Norman Wisdom. Bawden, too, has lovely clarity, as does Joanna Riding who plays Genevieve's cash-strapped Mamman. Riding opts for a rather horsey Englishness. It is not quite what you would expect from the proprietress of an umbrella shop in Cherbourg. Cynthia Erivo shows promise as a maid to Guy's aged aunt (who for some reason is played by a bloke). But without the repeated strains of 'I Will Wait For You' all their efforts would wither. Director Emma Rice, unable to give us lingering shots of Cherbourg, hammers home the port theme by inventing a trio of sailors who keep lifting other characters by the armpits and depositing them in different parts of the stage. This device becomes extremely irritating. There are also sporadic touches of zany invention, such as a mode village of Cherbourg and a little toy car ... In fact, the whole thing washes over you rather like a warm water. And you do leave the theatre heady with thoughts of de Gaulle's France, and northern ports such as Cherbourg, and your girlfriends from youth's yesteryear. The heady brew of regret. That's why, rather to my surprise, I give it three stars. I must be turning into an old softie!"

Charles Spencer
Daily Telegraph

"I have to say that the film is far from being my own tasse de tisane, with its Gallic artiness and a whimsical charm that often borders on the downright kitsch. And since Rice’s stage adaptation is pretty faithful to the original... the show didn’t do much for me either ... There is little psychological insight in the writing and the fact that all the dialogue is sung serves to underline its banality. 'I am afraid she will develop a nervous complaint from the life that we lead,' sings the mother. It’s not exactly Sondheim, is it? I found it hard to warm to a heroine who so quickly takes the pragmatic way out of her difficulty, and the young lovers are in any case given curiously charmless, sexually tepid performances by Carly Bawden and Andrew Durand. Worse still, there is only one decent song amid the interminable recitative. Legrand’s 'I Will Wait for You' is certainly a dreamily romantic melody, but a musical with only one great number seems to me to be short-changing its audience. Joanna Riding is excellent as the anxious, control-freak of a mother, and Lez Brotherston’s designs... are ingenious. Nevertheless, for all its attempts to seduce the audience, I found this an impossible show to love. Even the poignant ending feels like too little, too late."

- Rebecca Black


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