There’s something satisfying about watching the greats fall from grace, be it in fiction or the news. After giving us two of the biggest hits in West End history (Les Miserables and Miss Saigon), Boubil and Schönberg began their decline with Martin Guerre before falling flat on their faces with last year’s Broadway bomb The Pirate Queen. While Marguerite, which they contributed the book and lyrics to, is far from being a top notch work, it shows that this legendary duo are working their way back up.
Marguerite resets Alexander Dumas’s novel Le Dame Aux Camèlias in the second world war. The title character is a high end prostitute turned singer turned prostitute who’s shacking up with a Nazi general in occupied France, while her society associates take advantage of her position for rations and to raise their own standing in what is viewed as the new pecking order. The show opens at the end of the story, as the populace turn against Marguerite (Ruthie Henshall) before we flash back to her birthday party some time earlier. As the British bomb Paris, our protagonist has a brief encounter with pianist Armand (Julian Ovenden) playing the event. As the two fall in love, we follow a parallel storyline as Armand’s sister (Annalene Beechey) works for the resistance with Jewish lover Lucienne. While the concept is a good idea, it’s not without flaw and at times feels like an exercise in expressing national guilt over the natives' actions under the Vichy government.
Unfortunately, there’s just no real reason to care about Marguerite the character. It’s shown from the beginning that she doesn’t love Otto (Alexander Hanson), but is merely using him. While she talks of the great risks of meeting (and sleeping) with Armand, we are given no real sense of danger until the second act, and never any emotional ties to this woman. When Otto dies during the second act and Marguerite finds herself without friends or finance, she sings a “How did this happen to me?” song. The answer, of course, is pretty simple: she fucked the man for his money and the gravy train got derailed when her lover shot him. There’s no subtext to the character, just a self-pitying opportunist who finds herself playing romance Tetris like in any other romance novel or women’s manga.
Michel Legrand’s score is beautifully orchestrated traditional musical theatre with a clear period influence, but it’s not especially memorable, and there’s not a song that immediately grabs your ear and demands repeating on your iPod. Herbert Kretzmer’s translation of Alain Boubil’s original French lyrics is simplistic. The rhymes are functional and suit the piece, they’re also uninspired, and there’s no subtext or greater intelligence to them. While not every musical demands a “Color and Light” or even a “My Psychopharmacologist and I”, some greater depth in the words (including the book which claims three authors) would go a long way towards making the title character sympathetic,.
Not that Ruthie Henshall doesn’t try. Utilising a classical soprano for most of her songs, Ms. Henshall sings in fine form, though her emotions are forced or outright lacking during scenes such as the opening party and when she begs Otto to spare Armand. Likewise, Mr. Hanson’s Otto is an archetype and not a character, flat until Marguerite angers him, and we don’t see any of the love he professes - the two are together for convenience. Mr. Ovenden’s Armand fares better, but Ms. Beechey steals the show as conflicted resistance fighter Annette.
The real star, however, is Paul Brown’s glamourous set, evocative of the era’s films combined with Mark Henderson’s sepia toned lighting. While the RZ found himself groaning when he first saw a turntable in use, the designs reminded him more of Rebecca than Les Miz. And yes, the much discussed explosion at the end of the second scene is truly impressive.
Overall, Marguerite is a misplaced love story where the side characters prove more engaging than the principals. There are certainly worse things running in London, and Legrand’s score justifies the cost of tickets. However, the piece isn’t ready for a West End run. Had the RZ seen it in Cardiff or Manchester as an out of town tryout, he’d have said that some focused rewrites could shape things up, but he saw it four days before the London press night. There’s no word on if revisions will continue after the official opening, but Marguerite needs work should there be plans to transfer. As it stands, the show is only OK.
Where: Theatre Royal, Haymarket
When: M-Sa @ 19:30, W/Sa @ 14:30 until November.
How Much: £25-£60
Concessions: £20 day seats when the BO opens. Seniors can advance book W Matinees for £25, disabled seats are £25 advance bookable. Students £20 stalls/£12.50 upper circle on the day.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £32.50. Treat it like a concert with sets and costumes, it’s just not “there” enough to pay full price, but one can justify half.
RZ Other Notes: The RZ recommends the creative team go across the street to see Brief Encounter as a reminder of how less than ideal characters can be emotionally engaging before going back to revise this show. Couples looking for an evening at something romantic would be encouraged to do the same.