Monday, 11 April 2011

on peut toujours ecrire

And so, to business, and the primary purpose of this blog; that is, aside from the very important rendering of recipes (lemon/olive oil/rosemary cake on its way) and general wittering of nonsense. I was, for a spell, almost a theatre critic; I'm still a member of the theatre section of the Critics' Circle, and the large chunk of me that daily fears being painted as the fraud I really am expects to be kicked out any minute now, due to my general lack of published reviews. For months and months I've had no problem with this state of affairs: writing theatre reviews is an agonising business, fraught with responsibility. Instead, I've kept myself busy previewing work, interviewing theatre-makers, now and then sneaking into rehearsal rooms to wonder at the alchemical processes occurring there.

And then came The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, the Kneehigh production. I saw it in preview at the Curve in Leicester, in the run-up to writing this feature, and loved it. LOVED IT. I was fully prepared not to, as the film has been embedded in my heart for over a decade, and the snatch of it I heard on Front Row sounded awful, slaughtered by the two leads' bright but fake Broadway voices. But within minutes of the industrial curtain rising over a neon-lit Cherbourg of dolls' houses, wrought iron and 1950s kitsch, I was in tears, and remained so to the bittersweet end.

Knowing the film so well, I felt sharply tuned to Emma Rice's changes, the subtle interpretations she brought to bear on the story. I'd never thought of Mme Emery feeling love for Roland Cassard other than as a rich and cultured husband for her daughter; here, the very sight of him sweeps her off her feet. Conversely, Rice's fidelity to some of the more absurd sequences in the film is lovely, notably when a distraught Genevieve is told to eat some fruit and someone throws her a Granny Smith. And there are so many dinky things in the staging, from the toy car driving through Cherbourg in the opening scene to the embroidered tea-towels used to mark the passage of time, gently underscoring what a small and everyday story this is.

I knew the show wasn't perfect. Sheldon Harnick's English translation, written in the 1970s for a New York production that bombed, sounds prosaic in the wrong way: the whole point of Jacques Demy's script is that the language is mundane, and perhaps to French ears the original dialogue sounds flat and humdrum, but Harnick's translation slumps where a stage demands that it soar. Sometimes the singers were drowned by the band; sometimes the acoustic musicians were drowned by the synthesisers. An entire scene between Mme Emery and Cassard was undermined by the exhibitionism of a chintz armchair. Unlike a lot of reviewers, I had no problem with Aunt Elise being played by a man; it was unfortunate, however, that at one point scenery requirements forced the actor out of her wheelchair and nimbly down a flight of stairs.

But these felt like mere quibbles in the face of the overwhelming, heart-wrenching loveliness and pain and purity of the story. It's so simple: Guy and Genevieve adore each other, external events force them apart, they meet other people, learn a different love, less carefree, more mature. Romance gives way to disillusionment, and then to feelings that are quieter, sensible, tender rather than explosive. Watching it, I fall apart. Not because I'm a hopeless romantic, because this is a story that tells us romance is a game played by children not yet grown. It's because it so unflinchingly shows us the banality of life and everything that is demanded of us to see the course: patience, compromise, stillness, acceptance.

It's a mystery to me how anyone could not love The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, in any incarnation, but enough critics have slammed the stage show that its early closure, on May 21, has already been announced. (As an aside, three cheers for the West End Whingers and Webcowgirl for loving it too.) I know writing about it here won't make the blindest difference. But it did remind me how much I adore the theatre. And that if you want something, there's no point in waiting for other people's permission to get it. Or, as Mme Emery so sagely shrieks, on peut toujour ecrire, no matter what.