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 🙂


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