Having never seen the 1964 French musical film of the same name, I came to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg at London’s Gielgud Theatre with fresh eyes.
The production is subtitled “a French romance that just happens to be sung”.
Arriving almost late, the stalls were already bustling with energy with cast members strolling around the audience, including some very cute sailors and the seductive Maîtresse, Meow Meow, draped over a piano. The music rose and soon this saucy award-winning cabaret performer was in full swing. Maîtresse weaves the story together, playing everything from hostess to prostitute – the humourous ‘Allo Allo’ vibe and warmth she provides is a relief from an otherwise rather intense production. Her song, in French, at the close of the first act is warm and moving, perfectly summing up all that has come before, even if you don’t understand a word.
The set itself is undoubtedly the star of the show, meticulously detailed and often strikingly beautiful. Delicate lights pepper the auditorium, with intricate model houses, retro neon lights and of course, a few colourful umbrellas on stage.
Like the film, the entire production (apart from Maîtresse’s introductions), is sung. From the most passionate affirmations of love, to the most trivial of small talk. In the original French (so I’m told) there is a rhyme and metre to this which is sadly lost in this Anglicised version. It can all be a bit too much at times, with the feeling that words are being sung, just because the medium demands that they have to be. This can be both tiring and tiresome to watch after a while, especially as a number of lines come across tunelessly blasé.
But with any song, there are points of high emotion and points that are dull. This song just happens to be a lot longer than most. However there are moments of great musical richness, especially from the captivating Cynthia Erivo (Madeleine), whose sparklingly resonant voice lights up the auditorium whenever she opens her mouth. Carly Bawden’s Genevieve comes across as pleasant, girly and sweet and is enjoyable to watch. Her mother, Madame Emery, is played by Joanna Riding with excellent skill that reveals a character with great depth and passion.
The central boy of this love story, Guy Foucher (Andrew Durand), is pleasant enough, but ultimately a bit shallow compared to the flurry of interesting female characters. He grows as a character throughout and is stronger and fully formed by the close.
When I saw that the elderly Aunt Elise was to be played by a man (Dominic Marsh), I was expecting some more ‘Allo Allo’ style humour, but Aunt Elise isn’t funny at all, nor tries to be. I was left wondering what the point was. There could have been a few more laughs throughout – I think I chuckled slightly only twice outside of Meow Meow’s intros.
Umbrellas isn’t your typical story of boy gets girl and they all live happily ever after. Twists and turns make it more a more real and believable story. This visually beautiful production, where it rains on stage and even snows in the end, is somewhat intense, at times hard work, but gripping, moving and thoroughly enjoyable theatre.