Theatre Royal Haymarket 27 August – 7 November. Reviewed by Claire Roderick
McQueen gives us a glimpse into legendary designer Alexander McQueen’s visionary imagination.
Writer James Phillips and director John Caird have created a darkly magical experience which begins with Stephen Wight, as McQueen, wandering around the stage almost unnoticed as the audience enters the theatre. Whilst most of the audience is chatting or checking phones, Wight is compelling as he silently searches for inspiration for his next collection.
The play covers a single night, with a girl, Dahlia, who has watched McQueen’s house from a tree for 11 days, breaking in to steal a dress. She believes that the dress will make her someone special. Instead of calling the police, a tormented McQueen takes her on a journey through his London, revisiting significant places and people from his life. Their visit to the tailors where he apprenticed is myth busting yet also enhances the legend of his cutting skills. Once Dahlia has her dress her true motives are revealed, and the dynamic of the relationship changes – now who is saving whom? And will they make it through the night?
Carly Bawden’s Dahlia is spiky and funny, but heartbreaking as she gradually unveils the darkness within her character.
Isabella Blow is an ever present figure in McQueen’s life, drifting on and off stage silently until their eventual confrontation. Tracy-Ann Oberman is a hoot as Blow – quipping acidly with McQueen but with an undercurrent of anger and despair. When she finally lets her mask slip, Blow’s pain and fear are palpable.
Stephen Wight is magnificent as McQueen – he is on stage constantly and gives a captivating performance. From the nervous gestures, the angry rants, suicidal thoughts and philosophical questioning to instances of complete stillness when he “sees” his next creation, Wight makes every moment of this dark fairytale believable.
The set and lighting design enhance the otherworldly feel of the play, even when McQueen is on a rooftop in Stratford. Music from McQueen’s shows is used sensitively throughout – with a fantastic nod to Frankie Goes To Hollywood.
Seamless set changes are produced by dancers dressed as McQueen models in routines echoing his fashion shows. A standout routine involves a twisted version of a ballerina music box – a 21st century Truly Scrumptious moment.
The idea that we can be transformed into the people we really want to be by the clothes we wear seems shallow, but McQueen’s explanations of what he sees when he looks at a person, and what his clothes could represent to them for an ephemeral moment, are incisive and enthralling. The play asks big questions about the vacuity of art and the meaning of beauty, love and talent. It tackles guilt, depression and suicide unflinchingly, but still manages to be very funny. When McQueen makes it through the night, the final scene is triumphant, but, as we know his eventual fate, bittersweet.
This is a must-see for all lovers of McQueen’s designs – and for lovers of damn fine theatre. Just like “the stuff” Alexander McQueen made, this play is a challenging, uplifting, disturbing and beguiling thing of beauty… whatever that may be.