If you missed out on partaking of this particular product of McQueen mania the first time around, you now have a second chance, following its transfer to The Theatre Royal Haymarket. I caught the play during its original run at Victoria’s St. James Theatre, but when I was invited to review it in its latest incarnation, I was intrigued to see the results of its West End revamp.
A fantastical foray into the inspiration behind his AW08 collection (“The Girl Who Lived in the Tree”), the production combines dreamlike surrealism with incisive glimpses into McQueen’s inner world and key relationships. Since it premiered at St. James in May, it has weathered more than its fair share of battering and belittling from critics, despite overwhelmingly positive responses from audiences. However, virtually everyone agrees on one thing – Stephen Wight consistently hits the mark with his pitch perfect portrayal of our eponymous hero (and, despite the cast’s repeated declarations that they are not attempting to be “impressionists”, it really is uncanny). Tracy-Ann Oberman is equally delightful as Isabella Blow, avoiding the temptation to tone down her larger-than-life portrayal of a truly larger-than-life-character in deference to the weighty material of their betrayal and depression-focused exchanges.
Carly Bawden replaces Glee’s Dianna Agron (whose performance, though perfectly competent, was the one element of the original production which didn’t entirely bowl me over) as “The Girl Who Lived in the Tree”. The “everywoman” foil to McQueen’s artistic genius, or his own alter-ego? We’re never entirely sure but, essential as the character may be to the plot’s through line, I’m not sure she’s ever been imbued with sufficient emotional depth, by either actress, to make anyone truly care about her – in contrast with Wight’s gruffly poignant portrayal of McQueen.
No matter – in concert with Wight’s performance, the show’s integral physicality (McQueen’s balletic mannequins haunt him, and us, throughout – and who doesn’t love a good “tube train” mime?) combines with the haunting soundtracks to his equally physical runway shows to conjure up a sensory feast which draws us headlong into his world.
How has the production fared in its translation to the West End stage? Every space is different, and, for me, the black box of the St. James auditorium, with its looming “cliff-face” seating, intensified the claustrophobic sensation of plunging into McQueen’s troubled mind. In contrast, the Royal Haymarket’s gilded balconies and shimmering chandeliers keep us at one remove from the action, and I couldn’t help but feel that a little of the raw power of the movement-based sequences had been lost in the process of their West End makeover. Likewise, the superfluous extension of certain scenes’ narrative dialogue occasionally hampered the production’s natural momentum, whilst I felt the loss of the omission of one of the most powerful of the play’s original scenes, featuring McQueen interacting with his parents and sister.
But if you weren’t lucky enough to catch it off-West End, don’t let these considerations put you off experiencing the production for the first time. Whilst some have dismissed the play as “fan fiction”, its remit goes far beyond a tribute to one man – as attested to by my companion, who, claiming a little less knowledge of McQueen, and fashion in general, than the average houseplant, turned to me in astonishment during the interval to exclaim how much the play had “spoken” to him. It’s one of the most eloquent, heartfelt comments on the true price of the commodities we variously call talent, artistry, creativity, dedication and single-mindedness you may ever see on stage. Drag along anyone who’s ever scoffed at you for daring to think dresses are important.
McQueen is at The Theatre Royal Haymarket until 7th November.