A Love Story Set In Nazi-Occupied Paris
Penny Flood reviews Marguerite
Marguerite is a big, gutsy musical about a group of people in occupied Paris in the 1940s. Loosely based on the Alexander Dumas novel La Dame aux Camellia, it takes an uncompromising look at the effect of war on ordinary folk. The story of love, loyalty, loss and survival has a slightly predictable plot that still manages to shock and surprise.
Marguerite has distinguished creators: original book by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg of Les Misérables and Miss Saigon fame, with music by Oscar winner Michel Legrand. It was first performed at the Haymarket Theatre in London in 2008 to a good critical reception. This version, produced by Alex Parker and brilliantly directed by Guy Unsworth, has been adapted for a smaller cast and space - just right for the Tabard. Unsworth also worked with Boublil to rewrite the book for this version.
The Marguerite of the title (Yvette Robinson) is the mistress of a Nazi officer Otto (Michael Onslow), a menacing presence overshadowing the action. It’s a relationship that benefits her friends in the Bar Tabarin, run by the amiable George (Mark Turnbull). But as they enjoy the rare treat of drinking champagne in wartime Paris while fraternising with the enemy, they still sing laments about their beloved ‘free’ Paris. As they try to survive as best they can while British bombs drop around them, there’s no glossing over or romanticising the awkward truths of life under a brutal occupation, which gives the action and music a gritty edge.
Robinson as Marguerite is gorgeous, with a fabulous voice that can belt out the big rousing big numbers like Aimez Moi in the opening scene and also express unimaginable sadness with The Face I See, in the final scene. She’s desperate but helpless as well as brave in the face of history, which is also true of other characters.
The play opens in George’s bar on Marguerite’s birthday, with all her friends enjoying themselves under Otto’s watchful eye. He’s well aware of what they think of him, but he knows they appreciate his petrol coupons as well as the food and drink and luxuries. A bombing raid ruins the party atmosphere, and brings a dramatic and deadly twist to the plot.
The French Resistance is touchingly portrayed by the leader Lucien (James Darch) and his sister Annette (Zoe Doano). A dangerous dimension to the story emerges as try to escape Paris, desperate for their part-Jewish friend Armand (Nadim Naaman) to go with them. Powerful personal emotions and complications are interwoven with the tragedies of war because Marguerite and Armand become lovers as the bombs fall, while Annette has long been in love with Armand.
Things turn more nasty in the second act as the action becomes scary and the songs more melancholic and desperate amid the ever-present danger and horror they have to live with. The bloody cruelty is shockingly highlighted, for example by the beating a French policeman gives to the likeable black marketer Pierrot (Alastair Knights), whose crime was to provide a few sausages on the cheap.
Eventually, it all comes back to where it started, in the Bar Tabarin, but things aren’t the same as at the start.
There are 27 songs, performed in varying formations by a cast of 12 accompanied by an 8-person orchestra who deserve a special mention for playing so well in a very confined space. Other members of the cast who appear in various roles at the party, in the bar, at the railway station and in the resistance are Jennifer Rhodes, Helena Raeburn, Jessica Parker, James Meunier and Daniel Oliver. Great stuff guys.
Surprisingly for a play with such an impressive heritage in stage musicals, the most disappointing aspect is the music. It lacked variety, with many songs sounding similar, like variations on the rising- chord themes of so many other musicals, and a few times the band is too loud. But overall this is a grand piece of theatre and it is great to have it in Chiswick’s pearl of a theatre.
Marguerite is at the Tabard until 27th October
October 12, 2012