Theatre Royal Haymarket, London SW1
THE BEST part of two acts is a long time to wait to start caring about a show’s main characters. One of them is the eponymous Marguerite — powerfully played by Ruthie Henshall — a chanteuse and courtesan of a Nazi officer in occupied Paris. The other is Julian Ovenden’s infatuated Armand, the piano man in a jazz quartet with whom Marguerite falls in love.
Les Miserables creators Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg, and lyricist HerbertKretzmer,haveteamedupwith composer Michel Legrand and director Jonathan Kent to update Alexandre Dumas’s 19th-century romance La Dame aux Camélias to wartime France. The result is admirably dark, often daring, but rarely uplifting. Few punches are pulled in portraying French collaboration and the zeal with which Vichy France persecuted its Jews.
Against all this, Marguerite’s dilemma comes across as relatively trivial — whether to follow her heart, and risk the wrath of the brooding and jealous German commander Otto (Alexander Hanson), or stick with what she does best, living it up with the “profiteers, crooksandFrenchscum”(Otto’swords) whom she calls her friends. So even as she and Armand risk life for love, the nagging thought persists: “Well, you made your bed, darling…”
For much of Kent’s elegant production it is left to the Jewish fugitive Lucien (Simon Thomas) and Annette (Annalene Beechey), Armand’s sister who sides with the resistance, to supply the emotional core. It helps that Legrand and Kretzmer reserve for them the show’s mostbeautifulsong, TimeWasWhen, one of the few sweet melodies in the score. Eventually, at the sight of Annette’s tortured body, Marguerite chooses sides. Her decision comes just in time for us to care about her fate in the harrowing finale. ( Tel: 0845 481 1870)