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Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
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Marguerite is a strange new musical to find in the West End at the moment, a glossily produced update of La dame aux camellias by Alexandre Dumas and its Verdi version, La traviata, set among the collaborators in Occupied France with more than a touch of a corny old French Resistance film such as Anna Neagle in Odette, and a heroine skewered in an emotional, middle-aged crisis.

Instead of dying of consumption, though, Ruthie Henshall’s vivacious Parisian courtesan Marguerite is sleeping with the enemy – Nazi officer Otto, gruffly played by Alexander Hanson – and turning 40. Her party is interrupted by an air raid and, when the windows are blown out in a spectacular explosion, she’s thrown into the arms of a jazz pianist who has already fallen in love with her. They kiss. They are doomed.

The pianist Armand is half her age, or supposed to be; Julian Ovenden’s dominating personality and sex appeal are slightly scuppered by the fact that he looks more like Arnold Schwarzenegger than Brad Pitt. But he plays the keyboards very well and sings his head off. Next problem: the music by Michel Legrand has plenty of sweep and loads of lushness, and some neat and lilting jazz rhythms, but it’s short on theatrical melody and curiously bland. Not so much Legrand, alas, as Lepetit.

The show completes the bold three-production season under the direction of Jonathan Kent and is expensively designed by Paul Brown with lots of fin de siècle mirrors, dry ice, sliding panels, a revolve and a front cloth of Henshall’s overblown pretty face blinking enigmatically at the audience.

The support company includes such stalwarts as Gay Soper, Jessica Martin and Andrew C Wadsworth, and they all have their moments while submitting to some stark choreography by Arthur Pita, silhouetted in the lighting of Mark Henderson. The central love affair becomes difficult when Otto sets his spying dogs on Armand’s sister, Annette (Annalene Beechey), whose Jewish fiancé Lucien (Simon Thomas) is in the Resistance.

This story has been cooked up – there is nothing much inspired or inevitable about it – by the Les Miserables authors Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, as well as the director Kent, with lyrics by Les Mis veteran Herbert Kretzmer that do their job very well. But the sound system is tinny – why can’t musical producers get this right at this late stage? – and the violence of torture, sexual envy and retribution gratuitously attached and unlikely to appeal to Haymarket audiences.

- Michael Coveney


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