St James Theatre, London
Written by James Phillips
Directed by John Caird
|Tracy-Ann Oberman and Steven Wight
James Phillips’ new play McQueen offers a lavish tribute to one of Britain’s most acclaimed fashion designers. That Alexander McQueen was to tragically take his own life at 40 only (ghoulishly?) adds to his iconic mystique – though as the play opens with McQueen contemplating his own mortality and then proceeds to take us through what is suggested to be his last night alive, the narrative’s structure at times suggests a re-branded Arthur Miller. In place of Salesman, think Death Of A Designer.
In the title role Stephen Wight is a marvel. The accomplished performer literally becomes McQueen in a relentless performance that never sees him off stage. Wight masters the cocky, cockney genius that so defined McQueen – and when the dialog offers his character profound moments of reflection, Wight’s delivery is scorching. During a dialogue with journalist Arabella (a perfectly weighted performance from Laura Rees), McQueen offers his explanation of what makes a woman feel valued and there is an analysis in his words that is both relevant and recognisable, as Wight speaks with a touching and convincing resonance.
But if McQueen was haute-couture, Phillips choice of dramatic vehicle to portray the man is last seasons Primark. Dahlia, a fan and stranger has let herself into his home, providing the designer to re-tell his flashback tableaux.
Dianna Agron, star of the US TV series Glee plays Dahlia and one has to conclude that she has been “stunt-cast” based upon a Twitter following of two million, rather than ability. Her biography offers no hint of stage experience and it shows. Performing in close up to camera and with the safety net of re-takes is one thing but live theatre is a cruel master, demanding that an actor communicates at all times with voice and presence in a way that makes the audience suspend their disbelief. Agron tries valiantly, but her performance never gets above mediocre. John Caird is one of our leading directors and he should know better than this. His performer needs to be coached into filling the auditorium with her persona and one hopes that Agron will find her feet as the run matures.
David Shaw-Parker is a flawless delight as John Hitchcock, the master tailor under whose tutelage McQueen mastered the art of cutting fabrics. When Shaw-Parker speaks, it is though he has walked in from Savile Row. Tracy-Ann Oberman plays the complex role of Isabella Blow a style icon/muse to the designer, whose own suicide three years before his, hit him hard. Oberman delivers a trademark classy turn, though in a show that’s all about style, if her costume is to hint at décolletage, then it needs to be tightened up to conceal the actor’s underwear. McQueen would spin in his grave…
An imaginative twist sees a soundtrack of music selected by McQueen that accompanied a number of his collection launches, with tracks ranging from Handel to Bjork and Marilyn Manson. Set to the music, Christopher Marney’s choreography is electric, with a company of androgynous mannequins drilled into a perfect graceful poise. Particularly striking are Carrie Willis and Eloise Hymas’ shock-headed twins, en-pointe in unison throughout. A chic, bravura touch.
Timothy Bird’s ingenious video projections and Linda McKnight’s stunning wig design go a long way to suggesting the ascetic élan that McQueen became a part of, though Phillips stops short of offering too close an explanation of why McQueen chose to kill himself.
In what is largely a celebration of style over substance, McQueen offers a highly charged look at a very contemporary era in British fashion. Flawed for sure, but there is content here that makes for stimulating and sometimes exhilarating theatre.
Runs until 27th June 2015