The Glutton gives Offenbach’s musical some of its fire

‘Can–Can, the new Offenbach musical’, at the Union Theatre Southwark until 9 th March.
www.uniontheatre.biz Tel 0207 261 9876
*** (Three stars)

Review by Christopher Walker

London fringe theatre is alive and kicking, and at the Union Theatre it is kicking rather high.

Can-Can returns to the stage, bringing us all the energy of the Moulin Rouge and a whiff of its Belle Époque decadence. It may not have the budget of a West End musical, but the costumes are authentic and the set ingenious.  And the cast is so enormous it is almost bigger than the audience in this small theatre. When the girls (and boys) do their Can-Can, it fills the house with electricity. And the boys kick higher than the girls.

Oh to have lived in the “Naughty Nineties.” That decade of sexual revolution and artistic genius that gripped both sides of the Channel at the end of the nineteenth century. In London it ended badly, with the Trial of Oscar Wilde, and several decades of stifling “no sex please – we’re British.” In Paris it gave us what we can enjoy here. Offenbach, Toulouse-Lautrec, and the larger than life characters of the Moulin Rouge they immortalized.

All this will be familiar to lovers of Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 movie Moulin Rouge. There are certainly echoes of that in Phil Wilmott’s staging, and in the performance of juvenile lead Kathy Peacock (Jane), who at her best captures the poise and beauty of Nicole Kidman. But the plot is different.

Thank God her star-crossed romance with newcomer Damjan Mrackovich (Christian) has a happier ending. However, Willmott’s staging goes further than Luhrmann’s, treating us to two historic characters left out of the movie – “La Goulue” and Yvette.

PK Taylor’s La Goulue is quite wonderful. A genuine star. The real La Goulue (roughly translated as “the Glutton”) apparently wandered round the Moulin Rouge downing the punters drinks, when she wasn’t kicking their top hats off. What evil theatrical genius thought of plucking an experienced “Widow Twanky,” to bring her so delightfully to life? A poor laundress who worked her way up to being Paris’s highest paid woman, she is recognizable from Toulouse-Lautrec’s paintings, with her distinctive, trademark, hair colour – closer to orange than red.

The real Yvette (Guilbert) shared that vermillion hair – but clearly there was no chance of getting that wig out of PK Taylor’s iron grasp. Yvette is brilliantly played by Emily Barnett-Slater, channelling
Oliver Twist’s “Nancy.” She deserves a particular “chapeau” for performing so many wonderful dances with a cigarette between her teeth. And the dances are wonderful. Choreographer Adam Haigh has achieved miracles in this small space. The opening and closing scenes are simply joyful.

Sustaining this high energy is of course difficult. How to avoid lulls when the songs alternate with dialogue that progresses the plot. This is an area that needs more work. The plot progresses too slowly. The ears of an English audience are too finely attuned to accents and class differences to get away with this clunky portrayal of the Bohemian actress struggling to fit into an upper class banker’s household. When you have a well-spoken lead, better to bring out her rejection of their values, not her failure to be upper class.

This young and enthusiastic cast includes many other budding talents. Lauren Wood and Sarah Kacey’s strong voices stand out, in their “Maid’s song.” The score apparently “evolves” – it would certainly benefit from another number using these two.

What joy to have such energy on stage. The ambition of this production knows no bounds.

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