Mirror balls and glittery rain, electric colours and fluorescent street lights, bell bottom trouser-wearing sailors and red lipsticked French Madams, The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg has that certain magical Kneehigh Theatre je ne sais quoi.
Set in a French port where people come and go with the tide, Jacques Demy’s story, made famous in the 1964 film starring Catherine Deneuve, is one of heartbreak, endurance and the sacrifices life demands, all with a delightfully Gallic twist courtesy of Emma Rice’s imaginative directing style.
Set in 1957, young lovers Geneviève and Guy are pulled apart when army service calls and Geneviève is left alone to wait the two years until they will be reunited. But when Roland Cassard, a wealthy jeweller, offers marriage and comfort, Geneviève must choose between her heart and her head.
An ensemble of sailors dressed in obligatorily French stripy t-shirts and Parisian chic ladies with Holly Golightly sunglasses and headscarves, portray the passing time using a variety of creative devises – umbrellas are opened to reveal dates, handkerchiefs are pulled out of trouser pockets inscribed with the months that have passed – sweeping in and out of the action creating a busy, frantic feel to the musical as the two characters at the centre of the story sink into solitude.
Narrating the story is cabaret star Meow Meow, playing the wine-swilling Maîtresse who has more fabulousness in her little finger then most of us will experience over a lifetime. Beginning with a French lesson and ending with the most melancholic beautiful song in the show, Sans Toi, the exotic actress steals the show as the ghost-like presence who watches over the lovers with knowing glances.
Completely sung-through, as Maîtresse points out, if you are offended by a bit of singing, this show is definitely not for you. But Michel Legrand’s understated score flits from dramatic to jazzy and is decidedly easy on the ear. Carly Bawden as Geneviève has a soft, sweet voice that suits her character’s innocence, while Joanna Riding shines as her hard mother Madame Emery.
The selling point of this show is undeniably the staging which is packed to its French gills with signature Kneehigh touches that add a layer of glitter to even the most mundane of moments. Why walk when a sailor can pick you up and swing you to your destination, and why worry about realism when a set of lit up dolls’ houses can portray a whole town with far more charm?
While the story may be too cynical for some with happy endings a world away, the production undeniably has heart in spades with Rices’s obvious passion for the magic of theatre coursing through its elegant veins.