Arts review: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

A poignant and peerless stage production in a dazzling setting moves Dominic Shellard to tears

March 3, 2011

Credit: Steve Tanner
Keep dancing: this uplifting production reminds us to endure life's setbacks

When I first came to Leicester in June 2010, my partner John and I spent a blissful day wandering around the city centre. We were not expecting the relaxed café culture, vibrant market or the interesting street life, but the real surprise was discovering the magnificent Curve theatre.

As you enter the city's Cultural Quarter via Rutland Street, you start to notice the impressive converted warehouses and the Exchange Building, which is reminiscent of New York City's famed Flatiron Building. However, little prepares you for the shock of entering the compact Orton Square and seeing this architectural wonder curve languidly round the piazza while rising magisterially into the sky. Curve is truly breathtaking and genuinely would not look out of place in Bilbao or Berlin, which is what you might hope from an architect of the international standing of Rafael Viñoly.

I re-experienced this feeling of unexpected wonder when I encountered The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, a co-production between Curve and Emma Rice's mesmerising Kneehigh troupe. I was aware that Kneehigh is one of the UK's most innovative theatre companies, believing in the principles of "play, generosity, vulnerability, ambition, bravery, anarchy and instinct"; that the original film had been entirely sung; that the internationally renowned cabaret performer, Meow Meow, had been persuaded to appear in this production; and that Curve was really on the up, following critically acclaimed productions of Rodgers and Hammerstein's The King and I, Brian Friel's Translations and Akram Khan's Vertical Road. But - again - nothing could have prepared me for the astonishing two hours I experienced there.

Put simply, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is absolutely stunning. It's a four-leaf clover. A Fabergé egg. A mask of Tutankhamen. I am absolutely certain that it will be a huge hit when it begins its seven-month run at London's Gielgud Theatre this month. If you can get to the capital, you must do absolutely everything you can to obtain a ticket, even if you don't like theatre. Because after this, you will.

Superficially, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg contains a number of elements that should militate against a successful adaptation of an iconic French film from 1964 to an innovative British theatre production in 2011. The original film was sung in French. The story deals with a love affair between two 17-year-olds, which usually results in 30-year-old actors unconvincingly attempting to be teenagers, and the love affair actually doesn't work out.

But the great skill of the director, Emma Rice, is in recognising that a simple adaptation would be the easy but ultimately disappointing option, so she goes for a full-scale metamorphosis instead. Meow Meow, therefore, frames the action with a series of cabaret sets, teasing the audience, goading them, even kissing them. This is classic Kneehigh: breaking the fourth wall, making the audience feel edgy, creating a yearning for more.

The two main characters, the young lovers Guy Foucher and Geneviève Emery, are played by Andrew Durand and Carly Bawden with appealing and authentic freshness, Carly having graduated from the Guildford School of Acting only two years ago.

Taking her cue from the transitory nature of life in the port of Cherbourg, where people come in on the ships and leave on the tracks, Rice employs a range of clever techniques to keep the action spinning and the time passing. These include having the sailors carry the protagonists around the stage and a visually stunning set comprising portable walkways, a cornucopia of neon advertising signs and model buildings that fly in and out (ably demonstrating the technical magnificence of the Curve facilities). In addition, the large band located high up at the back of the stage performs a beguiling, exciting and syncopated score that kept me humming for hours afterwards; indeed, the adept use of music is one of the many miracles of this production.

The plot is simple. Guy and Geneviève fall in love in 1957. She gets pregnant. He goes off to fight in the Algerian War. She marries someone else. He returns. But the plot requires two of the most difficult things to achieve on stage: the persuasive evocation of a love affair between young people and the recovery from the bitter realisation that love has been thwarted.

At first, I found the plaintive, somewhat downbeat singing of the lines underwhelming and discombobulating. But the ear quickly attunes, and the beautifully articulated voices, melodic tunes and perfect interlinking of voice and instrument create a breathtaking effect. Indeed, I cannot recall ever having cried in the theatre at a song, but Meow Meow's almost unbearably beautiful second-half aria, Sans Toi, so encapsulated the pain-in-the-chest, utter desolation of unrequited love that several of us in the audience forgot our "roles" and sobbed.

There are acting marvels galore in this mellifluous work. Cynthia Erivo, who plays Madeleine, Guy's salvation, is equally empathetic as his poorly aunt's nurse. Joanna Riding, as Geneviève's mother, is engagingly vain, anxious and loving in the face of her own penury and her daughter's pregnancy, while Meow Meow is appropriately domineering and humorous without being selfish. Indeed, it is the generous quality of the ensemble work - another leitmotif in Kneehigh's successes - that is most impressive.

Curve, which opened in 2008, had a difficult birth. Its construction costs escalated, there is still some misplaced carping about its location and it took a couple of months to find its artistic coherence. But, by goodness, its artistic director, Paul Kerryson, has achieved exactly that with a stupendous season - and let's not forget how fiendishly difficult it has been in the history of postwar British theatre to launch a new undertaking of this order. Curve is now well placed to become the UK's pre-eminent regional theatre.

Guy in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg has a tough time, too. Just as he falls in love, he is required to join the French Army to fight a complicated and poorly understood war overseas (the parallels with Afghanistan are too obvious to need drawing out). His leave is continually postponed and his letter-writing back home is understandably erratic. When he returns, he discovers not only that his deeply cherished girlfriend and the mother of his child has married someone else, but also that his only surviving relative, his enigmatic aunt, has died.

In a Puccini opera, this would have prompted suicide; in a Hollywood film, a bloodbath. But in a Kneehigh production, we witness a completely entrancing recovery from the depths of emotional despair. This is accomplished not by discovering religion or a sensational new girlfriend - Guy's love for Madeleine is tentative and gradual - but through the growing of a second skin. Time passes. He slowly adjusts. He endures. He survives. And this is what the vast majority of humanity does when faced with terrible setbacks, which is why The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is so profound and so uplifting. In this depiction of tough times being endured, survived and contextualised, I could not help thinking that there is a lesson here for UK universities.

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