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The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (review)

Review by Lizzie Guilfoyle

PRODUCED by innovative theatre company Kneehigh, adapted, directed and choreographed by Emma Rice and with music by Michel Legrand, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg certainly comes with noteworthy credentials. But does it deliver the goods? I think it very much depends on how you like your theatre.

Set in the French port of Cherbourg (where else), the story begins in 1957 when 20-year old Guy Foucher, a mechanic in a local garage, and 17-year-old Geneviève Emery, who works in her widowed mother’s chic umbrella shop, fall in love.

However, their happiness is short-lived when Guy is conscripted for a two-year tour of duty in Algeria. Nevertheless, before he leaves, they become lovers and vow to marry as soon as he returns.

The fates, though, have other plans – Geneviève discovers that she’s pregnant and must decide whether to wait for Guy’s return or accept an offer of marriage from Cassard, a wealthy diamond merchant.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg isn’t just about the ecstatic highs and despairing lows of first love, it’s also about unrequited love – Madeleine’s for Guy; unconditional love – Cassard’s for Geneviève; and girlish infatuation – Madame Emery’s for Cassard. It’s also about an entirely different kind of love – that very special love shared by a mother and daughter.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is described in the programme as ‘a French romance that just happens to be sung’ and that’s exactly what it is. Which might not appeal to everyone, particularly as it’s not in the same league as The Phantom of the Opera or Les Miserables.

It does, however, have a certain charm that over the course of its two hour ten minute duration becomes surprisingly endearing.

Apart from Joanna Riding (as superb as ever) as Madame Emery, the cast is largely unknown but, for the most part, they acquit themselves admirably. I’m just not 100% sure that Andrew Durand (Guy) is leading man material, largely because he fails to light up the stage as a leading man should.

And I wasn’t totally convinced by the three jolly matelots, who not only provide props etc but also act as stooge to the Maitresse – definitely not to be confused with ‘mattress’.

For those of you familiar with the film, the Maitresse might come as something of a shock for it’s here that Rice has introduced what she calls ‘a mystery guest’; an ‘everywoman’ whose job it is ‘to fill the holes’.

So, not only does she introduce an unsuspecting audience to the intricacies of the French language – and beware her razor sharp wit – she also appears regularly throughout. It’s a role (or roles) played with extraordinary panache by the wonderful Meow Meow.

Of course, it wouldn’t be Kneehigh without a puppet or two and the daring to be different. But that’s exactly what makes Kneehigh so exciting and unpredictable and what makes The Umbrellas of Cherbourg well worth a trip to town. However, if you like your theatre conventional, it might not be quite your cup of tea.

Read about the cast and creative team l View photos