Andrew Durand and Carly Bawden
in The Umbellas of Cherbourg
(© Steve Tanner)
Andrew Durand and Carly Bawden
in The Umbellas of Cherbourg
(© Steve Tanner)
Kneehigh's elegant, often curious adaptation of Jacques Demy's bittersweet, pastel-hued film musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, now at the Gielgud Theatre, feels a little at sea on a West End stage. Adapter and director Emma Rice retains much of the film's plot as well as Michael Legrand's score, but the results don't always match the film's charms.

It begins inauspiciously with an introductory sequence in which the cabaret artist Meow Meow clambers over seatbacks, puffing on a cigarette. She is the evening's narrator and translator, here to give the audience a brief French lesson before informing them that Cherbourg is the French equivalent of Hull.

While this device seems awkward and grafted-on, it does serve to establish the production's heightened faux French aesthetic, a world of red neon and corrugated steel populated by men in striped sailors' jerseys who lift and manipulate the characters as if they were dolls. This is France in a kind of ironic shorthand that flirts frequently with kitsch and pokes fun at the expectations of English audiences as much as anything else.

Teenage Genevieve (Carly Bawden) is hopelessly in love with Guy (Andrew Durand), a handsome mechanic. She's consumed by him in that fierce adolescent way, but when he's called away to serve in the Algerian war, the distance proves too much, the years too long, and she succumbs to the attentions of a wealthy jeweller. While the plot is a delicate thing, the poignancy is real; Young love often fizzles and fades. Time passes; people grow and change.

The lyrics can at times feel flat and banal, and Legrand's score, intended for the screen, does begin to feel repetitious as its love theme is returned to again and again.

Fortunately, Rice finds a way of better incorporating Meow Meow into the fabric of the piece with her emotive second act solo, "Sans Toi" Joanna Riding is slightly wasted as Genevieve's protective but pragmatic mother, who brushes aside her own desires for the sake of her daughter. Bawden is pretty but passive as Genevieve, and Durand is more convincing in meltdown mode than he is in the throes of youthful passion.