12 July 2008

Marguerite – Theatre Royal, Haymarket, Friday 11th July 2008


Marguerite is the beautiful and notorious mistress of a high ranking German officer. Armand is a young musician half her age who falls obsessively in love with her. Their dangerous love story is played out against the background ofOccupied Paris.

First there was La Dame aux Camellias (a novel). Then came La Traviata (an opera), followed by Camille (a film), followed by Marguerite and Armand (a ballet), then Moulin Rouge (a stage musical, later turned into a film). Now we have Marguerite, (billed as an “adult musical”) – the latest incarnation of a story that has been doing the rounds ever since God was a boy. Do we really need it? Do we really need another doomed romance set against the backdrop of Occupied France with a chorus of French Collaborators, Nasty Nazis and members of the Resistance? Do we really need one more version of the tragically misunderstood tart with a heart coughing her guts up in a red frock? From the sound of the rather lukewarm applause this production received, I would say that the answer is probably no. The whole exercise just seemed rather… pointless, really. There’s nothing new to be said, the story’s been told. Making Marguerite the mistress of a high-ranking Nazi and Armand the piano player in a cabaret band which consists of him, his little sister (in the Resistance) and her Jewish boyfriend is frankly trying to pad out the story with extra layers of “Who’s going to get hurt?” and playing on our Secret Army/Schindler’s List/Sophie’s Choice fetish. Not to ruin the plot, Marguerite sets up the Nasty Nazi so that the Resistance can murder him, but of course, nobody realises that she's behind it until its too late..... Its just Romeo and Juliet all over again, with a bit of Cinderella thrown in for good measure (you know, unrecognised virtue and all that). Add some wildly atonal music, pitched way too high for the leading lady and that makes everybody else sound like they are having major note-pitching problems, and you're in trouble of losing your audience.

There were some high spots – Julian Ovenden made a stunning Armand, easily hitting notes so high and sustained that several bats fell out of the roof. The producer got the whole package here – shoulders to die for, boyish good looks, a fantastic voice and acting skills too. The only problem was that I found him just a little bit too anodyne to be truly convincing – a little more fire in the belly was needed, I think – because he mainly came across more as being Michael Ball than a passionate, artistic, tortured soul. And a costume note for the Director – men with shoulders and abs like that don’t keep their vest on while shagging. Alexander Hanson was smoothly and believably evil as Otto, the Nasty Nazi, making one wonder why he couldn’t have brought more to the role of Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music a couple of years back. The rest of the cast struggled to overcome the sheer cardboardness of their roles – Plucky Bicycle Riding Jews With Pigtails, Arrogant Profiteer etc – to really make an impact, although Annalene Beechey did sing really well as Annette (the plucky bicycle riding Jew with pigtails).

And Ruthie – what of Ruthie? Well, I run into difficulty here. For me, Ruthie is usually one of the residents of the They Who Can Do No Wrong hall of fame, and it feels slightly disloyal to run her performance down. But she sounded strained, as if the role was too high for her, and seemed to be relying on gawky, slightly faded charm rather than the glamour which the role demands. I dunno – maybe this is the wrong vehicle for her, or maybe I was just so generally disenchanted with the “seen it/heard it/bought the T shirt” aspect of the evening that she failed to ignite the usual sparks of adoration.

At the end, the audience reaction was slightly too OTT to be quite credible this far into the show’s run, leading me to think that the house had been slightly “papered” (filled out with people on complementary tickets), and the game of “Boo The Nazi Baddie When He Takes His Bow At The End” a bit naff. I won’t be rushing to see this again.

What the critics thought:

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