Union Theatre, London – until 9 March 2019
Continuing Phil Willmott’s ‘Enemies of the People’ Essential Classics season for 2019 is a new musical, Can-Can!, following on from Arthur Miller’s An Enemy of the People. It is soundtracked by the music of Jacques Offenbach and his contemporaries, and has a limited run at the Union Theatre, prior to a new production of Shakespeare’s Othello, as part of the same season.
It’s Paris in the 1890s, and Orpheus Theatre Troupe actress Jane Avril is set to leave the stage to begin a new life as the wife of Christian Bontoux, the wealthy heir to the Bontoux banking dynasty. Before their marriage, however, Jane has to go through a trial period to see if she can fit in with this very traditional family’s ways; left feeling as if her wings have been clipped, the only moments of joy come when Christian plays the troubadour outside her window at night.
Everything comes to a head when her theatre friends pay an unexpected visit late at night – despite her love for Christian, and her rapport with prospective sister-in-law Margot, Jane decides that freedom is too important to overlook. But with Christian also harbouring ambitions of becoming a performer, will the couple weather the storm – or are they destined to remain apart?
On the face of it, Can-Can! is an intriguing prospect: essentially a jukebox musical, but with more classical and traditional material than your typical pop fare. As well as Offenbach, there are compositions from the likes of Johann Strauss II, Franz Lehár and Sigmund Romberg. However, as is often the way with usual jukebox musicals, the book is where things fall down; the story is rather flimsy, with too many strands and characters to try and cater for – for example, Monsieur Bontoux’s back story (whilst sort of set up) does come a bit out of the blue, and the ending is all a bit deus ex machina. It’s almost like it wants to be Moulin Rouge! with the setting, the kinds of lives being depicted, a leading man called Christian, and Toulouse Lautrec…
I’m also slightly bewildered by the obsession with the word ‘gypsy’: both the members of the theatre troupe and the Bontoux household refer to the performers as gypsies for no particular reason. The excuse of its setting in La Belle Époque won’t wash either, as the rest of the script is hardly the paragon of historically accurate text . Simply put, I cringed every single time the word was used – it just makes no sense. I’m also not quite sure why it was deemed necessary to include an array of fart jokes; I’ve no aversion to them per sé, but they’re rather gratuitous here.
Where the show shines is in Adam Haigh’s choreography. There isn’t a lot of space to play with on that stage, especially with such a large cast, but it is by far the best element of the show. Jane & Christian’s ballet is well performed and choreographed, but it does feel quite out of place in comparison with the rest of the show – it’s very contemporary in style, which jars with the period and more traditional routines. The final can-can is definitely the highlight of the show, right at the end and providing a memorable climax; it’s energetic, daring and quite a sight to behold. Watch out in the front row!
Corinna Marlowe gives the most convincing & memorable supporting performances as the Countess (Great Aunt to the Bontoux clan) and Madame Olga (wardrobe mistress). Given the patchy nature of the book, it’s difficult to judge performances too much, though I can’t fault the enthusiasm and commitment to the show.
Photo credit: Scott Rylander
My verdict? If you love dance and can ignore the defects in the book, you won’t be disappointed – otherwise it’s not one to be rushing to see.
CAN-CAN! runs at the Union Theatre until 9 March 2019. Tickets are available online or from the box office.
Tags: Adam Haigh, CAN-CAN!, Corinna Marlowe, Enemies of the People, Franz Lehár, Johann Strauss II, London, Moulin Rouge!, Off West End, Offenbach, Phil Willmott, review, Sigmund Romberg, theatre, Union TheatreCategories: all posts, review, theatre
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