It’s raining men on Shaftesbury Avenue, where bell-bottomed matelots lift and twirl lovelorn teenagers Genevieve and Guy through Kneehigh’s adaptation of ‘Les Parapluies de Cherbourg’.
Kneehigh’s version of Jacques Demy’s 1964 musical film takes all its visual cues from that dreamy sugared-almond-shaded tribute to first love: as Genevieve (played by Catherine Deneuve in the movie), white-blonde Carly Bawden is as pale and sweet as ice cream while her widowed mother, the wonderful Joanna Riding, is a flamboyantly coiffed and wasp-waisted study in chic desperation.
Emma Rice’s show is gorgeously cast, apart from the oddly insensitive decision to have Guy’s wheelchair-bound aunt played by a man. In a smaller space it would be catnip for diehard romantics. But a full-scale West End show, even one where the characters lose their virginity on a slide, can’t be as light on its feet as Demy’s movie, which flickers as speedily and brightly as the lovers’ fleeting pangs.
Lez Brotherston’s designs – a neon ‘Je t’aime’, above a doll’s house-sized replica of Cherbourg’s high street – have lovely sentimental flair. And Kneehigh’s trademark emotional authenticity throbs in every part. But Michel Legrand’s minor score, in which every line is sung in notes that fall as randomly as raindrops, is more often a sprinkle than a torrent. One tune doesn’t make a stage show, even when it is the swooping tearjerker ‘I Will Wait for You’.
As in Kneehigh’s hit version of ‘Brief Encounter’, Rice adds an unruly subplot. Comic cabaret diva Meow Meow opens proceedings with stockinged legs akimbo, as the ‘Maitresse’, our ‘’Allo ’Allo’-accented guide to the port-city (‘a leetle like ’Ull’, apparently). Her soulful, battered flirtation with the audience is, for a problematically long time, the best thing in the show, despite being utterly unnecessary.
In the second half, the Maitresse emerges as its reigning spirit of lost love – in a brothel scene, she consoles wounded soldier Guy, abandoned by the pregnant Genevieve. She brings sex, knowing humour and a showstopping café lament that will have you weeping into your wineglass.
But the contrast between dreamy innocence and throaty, comi-tragic experience is too much for this slender story to bear: it brings you back to the earthiest of earth instead of letting you float, in a bittersweet bubble, above its pleasures and its pains.