Marguerite is the final production in a trio of plays directed for the Theatre Royal Haymarket by Jonathan Kent. Its origins lie in the true story of Marie Duplessis, a woman who rose from poverty to become the most feted courtesan in nineteenth century Paris, and whose life has inspired pieces ranging from Dumas The Lady of the Camellias to the 2000 film, Moulin Rouge.
The Marguerite of this musical – by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg – is a French woman who, during the Second World War, uses her charisma to captivate a German General and hence survive in occupied Paris. Her world is, however, shaken when she becomes enchanted with a younger musician, forcing her to choose between love and survival.
At first glance, the plot seems innovative. Weve had plenty of pieces about the British wartime spirit and the atrocities of Nazi concentration camps, but how many shows have there been on French experiences during the wartime Vichy Government? As this musical reveals, it is prime subject matter for exploring human behaviour. We see the middle classes acquiescing with the Germans to ensure personal comfort, but then disowning them long enough before their defeat to appear spotless at the last. We watch the working classes facing fewer options, and having to split on friends to escape persecution themselves; and we see a jazz band whose Resistance members are divided between those who make minor concessions to avoid trouble, and those unwilling to concede a thing on principle.
The show also explores how people fulfil their required roles. For example, the German General, Otto, believes he has the right to expect Marguerites loyalty after all he has done to help her. In this respect, the musicals primary interest lies in how Marguerite and her young lover, Armand, buck expectations. Marguerite sings that she feels like a china doll, possessing no power over her own actions and being controlled purely by a key. But whilst Otto believes that this key is her desire to survive the occupation, Marguerite learns that it is actually Armand (and her love for him). Thus, whilst Marguerite initially proclaims that she wishes to live, and Armand declares that he would prefer to die kissing her, by the end she faces death willingly.
It is a shame, however, that what feels so original initially, actually came across as quite clichd. Watching a woman rise quickly, live the high life in controversial circumstances, and then die young, was over-familiar as a narrative arc; specifically, it reminded me of Evita, especially since both musicals employ a similar structure, beginning and finishing with the end of the story. But whilst Evita benefits from having strong opening and final numbers, Marguerites opener, Come One, Come All, was not sufficiently impressive. It wasnt that the potency of music and setting failed to move me at all – and clearly the quiet nature of many of the tunes was deliberate – it was just that this song, and some others, like Day By Day and China Doll, felt weak. Proponents might describe them as possessing an understated poignancy. To me, however, they more often than not seemed insipid.
And, conversely, when the music was played out to heighten the drama, the scenes actually felt too melodramatic, something that also had its consequence. Things were helped immensely, however, by a superb performance from Ruthie Henshall in the title role. She worked superbly with the material to bring out the range of Marguerites emotions and ambivalent desires.
For example, when celebrating her fortieth birthday, Henshall gave the impression of a woman so gifted at appearing hedonistic that it could fool almost anyone, whilst cleverly making the audience aware of her vulnerability and her need to act the part. She was ably supported by Julian Ovenden as Armand, torn between love and loyalty to his friends and family, and Alexander Hanson as Otto, who steered clear of portraying his character as a stereotypical German General.
Partly as a result of these performances I was left feeling that this show had real potential, from a dramatic perspective at least, but for it to be transformed into a memorable musical, that would require a major overhaul of the music. As it is Michel Legrand’s score is just too weak and, in its present form, the production falls between two stools, satisfying neither as a drama or a musical.