My last experience of Emma Rice's lauded Kneehigh company was A Matter of Life and Death, which didn't do much for me; enough time had passed though for me to give them another chance with their new show, adapted from Jacques Demy's film The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. The tagline "a French romance that just happens to be sung" was a warning sign to be honest, that again this wouldn't really be for me. In the town of Cherbourg, a busy port that we're told is like a French version of Hull, we see first love between Geneviève (Carly Bawden) and Guy (Andrew Durand) but once he's gone off on his military service things don't follow the usual romance script and they have to move on with their lives with new people.
I don't mind a whimsical approach but I'm not convinced whimsy is meant to be something you're repeatedly hit over the head with, which is what I feel happens in Rice's shows. People spin or flip their way on and offstage for no reason, while poor Joanna Riding as Madame Emery is constantly being carted around the stage by the ensemble like a piece of furniture. A lot of the audience were clearly charmed but I'm afraid it was lost on me. It's also a strangely humourless affair; cabaret artist Meow Meow as the Maîtresse, a sort-of-narrator figure, has the only laughs but is underused and doesn't feel properly integrated into the story. I did love Lez Brotherston's sets but overall I'm afraid whatever everyone else may think of them I still find Kneehigh to be the theatrical equivalent of the bloke who keeps telling you "my friends all think I'm ker-ayzy!"
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg by Jacques Demy, Michel Legrand, Emma Rice, Sheldon Harnick and Charles Burr is booking until the 1st of October at the Gielgud Theatre.