Emma Rice and Mike Shepherd’s Kneehigh company have excelled at re-imagining fairy-tales and classic films for the stage, presenting versions of The Red Shoes, Brief Encounter and A Matter of Life and Death to great acclaim. For the first time, the company have turned their attention to a French film: Jacques Demy and Michel Legrand’s gorgeous bittersweet musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964). The results are wonderfully enjoyable. The story of the romance between a young couple, Guy and Genevieve, that’s complicated by separation when Guy is sent on a two year tour of combat in Algeria, the film is a dream of a musical, with its candy-coloured sets and costumes and innovative score by Legrand, not to mention the performances of Catherine Denueve and Nino Castelnuovo, both irresistible as the young lovers. In Kneehigh’s hands the source material becomes an equally glorious fusion of movement, dance, puppetry and song that goes beyond homage to carve out its own distinctive niche. This is a truly delectable production that delights and enchants from its opening moments, when Meow Meow’s Maîtresse clambers through the audience to take her place on stage, from where she serves as our guide to Cherbourg and its denizens. Observer and commentator, her character is the living embodiment of the spirit of the city, viewing the lovers’ travails with a mixture of warm compassion and ironic distance that feels exactly right for a narrative that combines romance and realism in equal measure.
As usual, Kneehigh opt for a highly stylised and eclectic approach to the material. But the disparate elements are united by the strength of Rice’s vision; she adapted, directed and choreographed the show. The production boasts a brilliant set design by Lez Brotherston, beautiful lighting by Malcolm Rippeth, and it is wonderfully sung and performed by all, with Carly Bawden’s Genevieve, Andrew Durand's Guy, Joanna Riding’s Madame Emery and Cynthia Erivo’s Madeleine outstanding. It might be most fun for those who know Demy’s film and are already acquainted with the conversational rhythms and quirks of Legrand’s score, which offers only one instantly hummable number (the immortal “I Will Wait for You”) but which slowly, gradually works its way into the listener’s consciousness. Also of considerable interest is the artful manner in which Rice has woven references to other Demy/Legrand-associated works into the piece. Meow Meow’s Maîtresse is, it transpires, Lola, the titular heroine of Demy’s 1961 film, while the character’s show-stopping number, “Sans Toi,” is drawn from Cleo de 5 à 7, the 1962 film directed by Demy’s wife Agnès Varda, which Legrand also scored and appeared in. Such references give the production a delightful richness of texture for French film buffs, and I was particularly taken with a final visual flourish that transports the show right back into the world of film - and the audience back out onto the city streets.
But the production’s inclusive spirit of play and its lovely poignancy should win over all but the most cynical of audience members. Kneehigh’s conceits are endlessly (and for some tiresomely) "inventive," yet they never swamp the heart of the story, with its mature and thoroughly clear-eyed appraisal of a youthful romance. As our marvellous Maîtresse reminds us: “We are learning the language. Of love.”
Official website here.