Monday, 27 October 2014

Theatre review: Here Lies Love

The Cottesloe at the National Theatre was a space whose shows regularly made it into my annual Top Ten, so it's exciting to see it reopen after 18 months of remodeling, under its new name, the Dorfman. Lord Cottesloe, who used to have the whole theatre named after him, now gets a seminar room by the bogs - Dame Theatre is a cruel mistress and her whims unpredictable. Speaking of which, the show that inaugurates the renamed theatre is a disco opera about the former First Lady of the Philippines, Imelda Marcos. David Byrne and Fatboy Slim's Here Lies Love follows Imelda (Natalie Mendoza) from a childhood of poverty but seemingly boundless optimism, to her escape route via a beauty pageant, which opens doors for her in Manila. Always drawn to politicians, Ninoy Aquino (Dean John-Wilson) dumps her for being "too tall" for a politician's wife, but a whirlwind romance with Ferdinand Marcos (Mark Bautista) soon sees her married to a wildly popular new president.

But after a landslide election, Marcos quickly draws criticism, and Imelda becomes the face of his presidency for good and bad: When he's out of action with potential lupus* she takes over; but she's also regarded as the epitome of the government's unchecked spending.

Alex Timbers brings his original off-Broadway production to the Dorfman, which is reconfigured by designer David Korins into a club, with much of the audience standing on the dance floor, the rest sitting on three sides, looking down. As well as fixed stages on two sides, there's a number of movable platforms in the middle of the dance floor on which a lot of the action takes place. With a DJ (Martin Sarreal) in a booth in one corner, the club atmosphere is kept from the time the audience enters until the bows, and the through-sung show blurs the line between musical and night in a club.

Here Lies Love speeds from song to song through the major events of Imelda's life, never really delving into her character or taking a stance on how she went from sweet but ambitious girl to notorious shoe-hoarder (with remarkable restraint, the most famous thing about Imelda Marcos is never mentioned, the only reference to shoes being that as a child she couldn't always afford them.) It's not Evita (I wonder if the people sitting in front of us who made a speedy exit halfway through thought that's what they'd be getting? Mendoza does Evita-arms at one point, what more did they want?) It feels like a concept album that's been put on stage which, it turns out, is precisely what it is. So the songs came first, and they're frankly great.

As the show goes on it becomes as much Ninoy Aquino's story as Imelda Marcos', and John-Wilson and Mendoza belt their way through their big numbers - he has a show-stopper with the moving "Gate 37" while she gets the whole crowd singing along to the title track. There's huge energy and enthusiasm from everyone though, from the cast to the ushers who have to guide the standing audience around the frequent reconfigurations of the set. It's probably just as well there was nobody sitting behind me, as no doubt they'd have got irritated by the fact that my head was nodding along almost non-stop to the disco beats, which have been expanded into a massively camp show (there's a lot of pink) but which achieves something of a coup when the style changes dramatically for "God Draws Straight." Overall, it's bonkers fun that had me immediately wanting the soundtrack.

Here Lies Love by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim with additional music by Thomas Gandey and José Luis Pardo is booking until the 8th of January at the National Theatre's Dorfman (formerly the Cottesloe.) Returns only, but additional standing tickets are released every Friday.

Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes straight through.

*I bet it wasn't lupus. It's never lupus.

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