The Umbrellas of Cherbourg – Gielgud Theatre

Kneehigh, the company behind this production, go from the utterly wonderful (their adaptation of Angela Carter's seemingly unadaptable Nights at the Circus), to the popular (their adaptation of Brief Encounter), to the brave but bad (Don John, the misguided updating and adaptation of Don Giovanni).

Fortunately, this is nearer the first. Unfortunately, it turns out to be far from another.

Umbrellas.. is, of course*, an adaptation of a French film, Les Parapluies de Cherbourg. Made in the 1960s, it won the Palme d'Or at the 1964 Cannes Film Festival, and had five Academy Award nominations including Best Foreign Language Film, Best Song, Best Original Score, and Best Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen. Phew. It's also deemed sufficiently famous to have a recreation of the umbrella shop in Disneyland Paris' Walt Disney Studios Park – one of very few non-Disney films referenced there.

OK, first the disclaimer – I saw this before the official opening. However, they still charged to get in and, from reading other reviews, nothing significant has changed in the production. The one problem on the night I saw it was some dodgy sound engineering, particularly towards the start. As that hasn't been mentioned by anyone else, I assume it's been sorted.

It starts with Meow Meow setting the scene and giving French lessons as a Maîtresse ('teacher, not mattress!') Now, my French is very, very bad (I failed my French O-level so badly that it's not even marked as a fail on my certificate) but even I found this funny. Some reviews have reckoned she's a new character, but given that she gets to be sexual with the hero, it's clear that she's the prostitute in the original, and is indeed 'something to lie on between you and the bed'.

All wonderful so far, and then we get to one of the points where you either love it or hate it. Like the original, this is operetta: everything is sung. This is not a problem in Don Giovanni, but Mozart barely stopped writing memorable tunes from about the time he started walking until his death. Here, there's one. Now, as mentioned, it was nominated for some serious awards, but the contrast with the rest of the score is striking. Fortunately the change from an full orchestra to a dozen or so musicians is an artistic success as well as financial necessity and the arrangements work very well.

Another big change is the visual look. The original which was one of those films where people talk of the colours glowing, making what we're told is the French equivalent of Hull look beautiful. Here the set is functional and occasionally fun, but it's more or less monochrome.

Fortunately, they haven't tampered significantly with the story which remains as powerful as ever – believable endings trump happy ones – and the rest of the cast carry it off, if not with the same style as Meow Meow.

So what we're left with is an excellent book, some good performances and one tune. Wicked has run for years on this formula (and survived dodgy sound engineering to boot), but on leaving the theatre, I said that I thought it will be nominated for at least one award, but won't be running this time next year.

At that point, it was due to close in October. Sadly, that date has been moved forward to May. It was never going to be everyone's cup of tea glass of wine, but 'ouch'. Surely this has a bigger market than that?

Good shows have closed too early before, but here I think the publicity reflects the show accurately (unlike, say, that for The Drowsy Chaperone) and while they've been mixed (just see the comments to one blog that correctly points out this is a Marmite show: you'll love it or hate it), many reviews have been the sort producers happily quote in full.

Is it 'cos ils sont français?

* As they say when they've had to look it up to make sure 🙂

4/5

My Trip Down the Pink Carpet – Apollo Theatre

I need to confess to never having heard of Leslie Jordan, the author and star of this autobiographical one-man show, before today. Half the audience knew him through a role on Will and Grace (it's a American TV 'situation comedy', m'lud) for which he won an 'Emmy' award.

The story is how he ended up being able to make a joke about taking the Emmy statuette to bed, "the first woman I've ever slept with", on live TV despite starting out loathing his homosexuality. It's also indirectly the story of how the audience – a list of names in the front row is dropped – applauds him for doing so, as does the audience here, in contrast to the homophobia of years ago.

In wondering whether or not to see it, I came across a review that wondered how many of the audience would have heard of some of the names that get dropped, like Faye Dunaway and Cloris Leachman. Erm, the main target audience, people for whom Sylvester's Do You Wanna Funk means something, will know them, even if they prefer Dunaway in Mommie Dearest to, say, Bonnie and Clyde.

As well as the showbiz gossip, he covers his childhood in Missionary Ridge, Tennessee (which I had heard of – it was the site of a battle in the American Civil War) where his father died when Jordan was aged eleven, through numerous crushes on other boys, to his decision to go to the only local gay bar.. with a little help.

He also covers his drinking (he credits the experience of being in a rehab group with a hundred straight men as teaching him how to be a man), drug use ("look, a pill on the floor, take it!") and promiscuity (his accountant said he knew when Jordan was working because all the street hustlers had new trainers). One noticeable omission is any mention of HIV and Aids. For someone who arrived in Los Angeles in 1982 and spent years partying on the gay scene, it is not possible for HIV not to have had a major impact on his life.

After writing this, I had the thought that it reminds me of an extended version of the scenes in La Cage Aux Folles (the original French film version, of course) where the effeminate Albin is attempting to 'butch up' to pass as heterosexual, but ends up a star as what he really is.

It's a good mix. I laughed a lot, and the night ended up with a standing ovation from a large portion of the audience. You probably know whether or not you'll enjoy it from the subject matter alone.

4/5

Get Santa! – Royal Court

A deliciously dark view of Christmas

I need to thank a friend for her pointer to this one (and the code to see it cheaply!)

Ten year old Holly thinks, unlike the rest of her family, that Christmas is rubbish because she never gets what she wants: to see her real father. Her mother has re-married a dog whose idea of decorating is to put meat – the subject of the shortest song ever – on the Christmas tree. So she concocts a plan to trap Santa and make him deliver for once. The real Santa is, of course too experienced to fall for the traps (crisps on the floor to make a noise, glue on the mantelpiece, whisky to make him drunk etc) but it's not just Santa on the sleigh this Christmas Eve… and her favourite toy, the bear she believes to be from her real father, ends up being brought to life. Now, as Santa's beard's magic only works on Christmas Day, what's a bear who wants to stay alive forever to do?

I'm not entirely sure how much children appreciated it (how many plays for kids feature bestiality as unremarkable?) but for the adults, this was wonderfully dark stuff (how many plays for adults…) about the disappointments of Christmas and the closest to creating its own world where everything makes sense, no matter how mad, since the incomparable Shockheaded Peter.

Imogen Doel channels Morwenna Banks's 'YES! I do know..' character in Absolutely (TV) / Bodgers, Banks and Sparkes (radio) in her portrayal of Holly, no bad thing, and the rest of the cast are fine, particularly Robert Stocks's doggy step-dad and everyone involved in the performance of the bear.

A delight, if you've got a warped sense of humour.

4/5

Billy Elliot – Victoria Palace Theatre

I am not a huge fan of the original film, and I had avoided seeing the musical adaptation ever since it opened in 2005. But on a bank holiday Monday, what I actually wanted to see with family and friends wasn't available at the tkts booth in Leicester Square and this, to my surprise, was.

Somewhat foolishly, given it won four out of the nine Oliver Awards it was nominated for when it opened, I didn't expect to be that impressed… Oops.

I'm not going to name names for the acting talent, not least as child labour laws mean that the part of Billy is rotated between three boys (all three of the original cast won the 'best actor' award in that year's Olivier Awards), similarly with the other child roles. A 'the part of… will be played tonight by…' notice by the theatre box office meant we might also have had understudies for the roles of his (dead) mother and a couple of others. No matter, 'Billy' made a couple of tiny mistakes while dancing but was otherwise spot on, as were the others.

If you're considering taking young children, you need to know that there's lots of rude words used, many of them by the child actors. It also features perhaps the only gay kiss to get the audience going 'ahhhh' at how sweet it is.

In other news, the choreography is superb (Peter Darling), the lyrics are excellent (Lee Hall, the author of the original screenplay) and the book (Lee Hall again) and staging (directed by the film's director, Stephen Daldry) are very good.. what's the problem? Well, there isn't one, but the huge surprise for me was the music.

I would never have expected something composed by Elton John to have fewer memorable tunes than a Stephen Sondheim musical (I say this as a huge Sondheim fan, but his average is about one per show!) Elton John has written more great tunes than I can name… just not here. I defy anyone to leave the theatre humming any of them. The Amazon reviews for the original cast album talk about it growing on you, which I have doubts about, but ultimately it doesn't matter: the rest of the package is so good.

4/5