Saturday, 23 May 2015

Theatre review: McQueen

Tapping into a general fascination with the designer Alexander McQueen that's only become greater since his death in 2010, James Phillips' play McQueen doesn't offer a straightforward biography. Instead it takes inspiration from a fairytale McQueen made up - and the resulting collection themed around it - about the 600-year-old elm tree in his garden, and a princess who lived in its branches. Stephen Wight plays Lee (the designer's real name; but he couldn't be called Lee McQueen or he'd have to speak about himself in the third person. And be CONCERNED,) who is having a bad sleepless night, unable to come up with a theme for his next collection. He catches Dahlia (Dianna Agron) when she breaks into his house; she claims to have been watching the house from the tree, and to have come in, thinking Lee was out, because she wanted to steal a dress for a special occasion.

Instead of calling the police, he agrees to take Dahlia out on the town and design a dress for her, but the long night isn't so much a travel through London as one through McQueen's life and career.

So we begin where he did, at the gentlemen's tailors where he first learned his craft, and which includes probably the best moment in the play - Wight recreating what we're told was a unique talent McQueen had, of cutting and creating a dress to perfect measurements without needing to make a pattern. But in other respects this is a play that never really seems to know what it wants to do; John Caird's production features a chorus of mannequins who come to life and bring some of the feel of McQueen's innovative runway shows to life; but they deposit Lee and Dahlia into flashback scenes that are surprisingly dry and inert.

In a production where the visuals were always going to be key, they hit a snag when the McQueen label didn't give them permission to recreate his designs, so David Farley and his army of wig and costume people have had to do their best at making something similar without infringing on copyright. They do a good job, although the key costume is already looking a bit ratty and we're still very early in the run. Odder is that, in a show whose tagline is "the fashion visionary who broke the rule," we don't get any sense of danger or rebellion. Before it opened the show carried a nudity warning, but this now seems to have gone - so no need to worry that Agron might get her Quim Fabray out. Instead the show focuses on McQueen's depression, well-expressed by Wight but leaving the show feeling one-dimensional, as if it's afraid to dig too deeply into the nastier side of its icon. The ghost of Isabella Blow (Tracy-Ann Oberman) arrives to make Lee feel guilty about not doing more to prevent her death, but that's the only real indication that McQueen's rise might have had a ruthless side.

Between them, Phillips and Caird also can't seem to decide how much of a fantasy element there is in the story: Who or what exactly is Dahlia, and to what extent are we supposed to believe she exists, or is the personification of Lee's suicidal side? In any case their climactic scene on top of a Stratford tower block, spotting a peregrine falcon and deciding to carry on for one more day, would probably carry more weight if the falcon in Timothy Bird's video design didn't look so uncannily like Professor Yaffle.

At least Wight, who's been away from the London stage for a couple of years, is reliably good in the title role. With his shaved head and a goatee, the physical transformation is sometimes uncanny, and as the audience enters he's already standing on stage, worryingly curling his belt around his hand. His performance of an aggressive East London attitude with just a hint of camp also feels suitably authentic, and his struggles with his own darkness are moving. Oberman also gets to shine as the similarly troubled but joyously OTT Blow*, but Agron has a cipher to play and not much she can do with her. Never finding its feet either as drama or as spectacle, McQueen is a disappointingly dull misfire - and with the well-stocked merchandise table doing great business, you can't help but question if it was staged for the right reasons.

McQueen by James Phillips is booking until the 27th of June at the St James Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes straight through.

*I was surrounded by Glee fans; Agron was sidelined for Oberman's scene, so tonight it was taken as the cue for a mass exodus to the loo

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