You’re only as good as your last show, and it’s going to take Kneehigh a little time to shake off this paint-by-numbers musical. Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a remake of Jacques Demy’s 1964 film about a young, French flavoured romance, upended by war and interfering in-laws. I haven’t seen it, but it sounds like a whimsical, romantic and visually ensnaring piece; a film for the eyes rather than the heart. Alas, the same could be said of Emma Rice’s stage adaptation, which is pretty in pink and occasionally charming but seriously lacking the normal Kneehigh punch.
The time is 1957. We know this, because we are constantly fed the timeline via a series of cards held aloft by robust and shiny-cheeked sailors. This trick seems neat initially but is repeated to death. We aren’t only fed dates but also quaint little French phrases (‘le soir suivant’), which are cheekily rotated to reveal the equivalent English translation. Again, funny at first but soon overdone.
There’s a number of hackneyed devices here, which is surprising, coming from a company that prides itself on unique and unexpected theatrical quirks. Kneehigh normally use their theatrical flair to disrupt a story, to exert their own colourful take on events, but the majority of tools used in Umbrella are blunt. Repeatedly, the characters are picked up by a troop of soldiers (almost permanently stationed on-stage) and placed down in spots they could quite easily reach by themselves. Often, the characters are raised in the air, only to be put back down on the same spot, as if indicating the utter redundancy of this device.
The only Kneehigh flavouring that adds some spice to this saccharine show is cabaret singer Meow Meow. Resembling a younger and less frightening Liza Minelli (who was present on press night and treated like royalty), Meow Meow plays host for the night. She brings some much needed irreverence and cynicism to proceedings and her interaction with the audience, as well as her one number (‘Sans Toi’), contain more character than the whole cast bundled together.
Elsewhere, pastel colours and strangely insipid dialogue abound. The entire text is sung and the pedestrian script (translated by Sheldon Harnick) and innocuous music (Michel Legrand – not so grand after all) slide lazily off each other. It’s the theatrical equivalent of combining mushy marshmallows (the script) and oozing treacle (the music). The central love story, between 16-year-old Genevieve and car mechanic Guy, is cloying as a result. During their whirlwind romance, cruelly curtailed when Guy is sent to fight in Armenia, Genevieve rasps seductively to her lover: ‘Honestly, how does my make up look?’ West Side Story, this is not.
Things do get sexier in the second half, when the pallid romance is stopped in its tracks. With Guy away at war, Genevieve discovers she is pregnant and quickly succumbs to a rich jeweller’s advances. Their wedding – though it comes far too soon to be able to register any sort of struggle – is brilliantly conceived. Massive pipes descend from the sky and a sailor bangs merrily on this hanging organ, as the supposedly happy couple ‘smile’ for the camera, their misery freeze-framed for eternity.
But, except for a few striking vignettes, this romantic musical is frustratingly bland. Genevieve and Guy bear a striking resemblance to Barbie and Ken, and theirs is a plastic, passion-free romance. Lez Brotherston’s set, with miniature houses set against a huge suspended moon, is the best magic this show has to offer. But no matter how many times Brotherston’s beautiful designs are wheeled on stage – including a gleaming red ‘Je t’aime’ sign - Umbrellas remains a damp squib rather than a torrential, passionate affair.