Two actors share the roles of scholar and tempter in a pacy production that brilliantly conveys joy in transgression.
Haymarket Theatre, London
Written by James Phillips
Directed by John Caird
Making its West End transfer from the St James Theatre, James Phillips’ McQueen, a semi-biopic exploration into the psyche of fashion icon Alexander McQueen, hangs in composite parts. Just like the brown paper sizing charts we see when McQueen brings the waifish and mysterious Dahlia to his old tailors on Saville Row, Phillips has constructed a series slightly uneven vignettes, and strung them up together without stitching them into a cohesive whole. It makes for an undulating evening, that at some points is fascinating, and at others is achingly slow. However, even if seen only in glimpses, the window into McQueen’s tortured mind is worth every peep.
The play is a journey, taking us through the crushing spectre of depression, right through to the euphoric discovery of inspiration. The stage is often constructed as a dream scape, with lucid video designs by Timothy Bird latching on to the melting fragmentations of McQueen’s mind, demonstrating how his fragile thoughts project not only those around him, but the very walls of his surroundings. Stephen Wight’s Lee McQueen starts the show before the audience have even taken their seats, pacing relentlessly, muttering and clutching a belt with foreboding animosity. There is an edgy restlessness to the proceedings before the lights even go down, and it creates a sense of dramatic anticipation that unfortunately is never again matched during the night. Scenes leap through unspecified gaps in time, and the dreamy hallucinogenic atmosphere undercuts any kind of narrative tension as the stakes drop from beneath the characters feet. John Caird’s direction shows a keen eye for the visual, and has a forceful specificity, but lacks nuance in the pacing. Some scenes linger far beyond their welcome, whilst other sections come to a dissatisfying halt just as they were building some intrigue. The humour of the opening exchanges between McQueen and his unexpected intruder, Dahlia (Carly Bawden), is a delight, but is never again revisited. There is a light tone to their banter, a dance of verbal one one-upmanship, intrigue laced with fear, fascination mixed with trepidation. It’s an enticing tone to begin the show, but it falls by the wayside as the play progresses and becomes bogged down with the darker harbinger of suicide.
Wight is tasked with the exploration of these macabre themes and does fantastic work. His is a central performance of tremendous skill, investing Lee McQueen with the right amount of sensitivity, whilst also hinting at an untapped well of visceral anger towards a world that will always expect more. There’s a real empathetic power to his speeches on the constant pressure to deliver whatever is ‘next’, as Wight constructs an unflinchingly relatable portrait of a man waving to the expectant crowd with a fake smile and a shaking hand. Bawden also shows some impressive chops with her take on the murky girl from the tree. There is a spirited intensity and confidence to her scenes, but she also shows a knowing physicality that belies inescapable vulnerability.
What elevates the piece though, is the stunning choreography by Christopher Marney, expertly conducted by an ensemble of ghoulishly beautiful dancers. These balletic interludes both transition and invade scenes and are breathtaking whenever they feature. Dressed both as mannequins and runway models, the dancers are both nightmarish in their grotesque inhumanity and angelic in their perfection. Their movements can be stilted at one moment, and lyrical in the next, effectively echoing both the frustration and beauty of human thought and inspiration.
The meandering pace and lack of narrative focus threaten to undo McQueen at certain points, however, it succeeds with excellent performances and a sumptuous design in keeping with the artistic genius at its centre. When Caird is freed from the lightweight plot and able to examine visually the psychosis of creativity, and the abject terror of failure; the piece soars on great golden wings.
Runs until 7th November
Guest reviewer: Will Clarkson
McQUEEN, which received its world premiere in May at St. James Theatre, where it broke box office records, will transfer to London’s West End, opening at the Theatre Royal Haymarket on Thursday 27 August 2015, following previews from 13 August, for a strictly limited season until 7 November.
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.
“What is it about men with watching eyes…?” asks the ghost of Isabella Blow, she of the troubled soul and hilariously witty hats. One such man was the fashion designer Alexander McQueen, who like his friend and patron finally killed himself.
In my theatregoing experience, James Phillips‘ new play, McQueen, which premiered this week at London’s St James Theatre, is the first play I’ve come across to take a serious – and respectful – look at the fashion world in a dramatic context.