With the plethora of jukebox musicals and safe theatre choices, it is a rare thing when a truly original piece hits the stage. However, with his latest piece of work, McQueen, James Phillips has brought a unique piece of theatre to the lucky audiences of the St. James Theatre.
McQueen, which stars Stephen Wight as the eponymous fashion designer Alexander “Lee” McQueen, tells the story of the journey he takes on one night with a woman, Dahlia played by Glee’s Dianna Agron, who breaks into his home to find the dress of her dreams. The journey they go on shows us the path McQueen took from apprentice tailor at Anderson & Sheppard, to the man who became a true fashion visionary.
McQueen’s 2008 Ready to Wear show was called “The Girl Who Lived in A Tree”, and when asked where the inspiration came from said, “I’ve got a 600-year-old elm tree in my garden. I made up a story: a girl lives in it and comes out of the darkness to meet a prince and becomes a queen.” It was using this show and quote that Phillips found the inspiration for his play.
The play itself is simple yet exotic. Wight is the complete embodiment of McQueen and at moments I found myself forgetting that I was watching an actor play the enfant terrible of the fashion world; it was like McQueen himself was in front of me. Wight portrayed the tortured, and troubled side of the designer to a tee, especially when we all know that McQueen took his own life in 2010 following the death of his mother, Joyce.
The scene where McQueen was reunited with magazine editor Isabella Blow, played by the incomparable Tracy Ann Oberman, was truly heartbreaking as McQueen finally realises the impact his actions had on Blow, who committed suicide in 2007, and his realisation that he knows how his ultimate journey will end. The scene where he finally creates Dahlia her dress and they meet Mr Hitchcock, who McQueen worked under at Anderson & Sheppard, by contrast was lighter yet still showed us that McQueen truly was the creator of his own image, not just the fashion he created.
Dahlia is a girl on a parallel journey to McQueen, and this is compounded when the audience realise just who she is in this journey. Agron, who makes her West End debut, is a revelation in the role. Yes I knew her as Quinn from Glee, but the depth she gives to this role shows just how talented an actress she is. She is the true beating heart of the show, and the fragility she gives Dahlia tempers the sometimes inhuman side of the designer, and I can’t help but wonder whether that was Phillips’s intention with the character.
Given that this a play about a man who put on some of the most spectacular fashion shows, the visuals within the play are awesome and incredibly clever. Scenes are moved on with the help of some truly amazing classical dancers who act as everything from models to mannequins, and help to create the idea of McQueen truly bringing his creations to life. The staging is simple and effective with constant nods to the motifs which McQueen became synonymous with. For example, in McQueen’s home there is a gold skeleton bringing in the skull motif he was so fond of.
One surprising element of the show was the soundtrack of the performance. The creative team used music which had featured in various Alexander McQueen shows, both for his own line and for Givenchy. It was another fabulous way to remind us who is at the heart of the show. Elements such as this also reinforce the support that Phillips and his team had received from McQueen’s family and friends.
Although the costume department, led by Caroline Hannam and James Maciver, were not given any original McQueen pieces for the show, both the dress and the gold feathered coat worn by Agron were incredibly close to the original McQueen pieces which inspired them. It was another sign that Phillips and his team have taken great care with the memory of an inspired, tortured genius.
I left the theatre in complete awe. In awe of what I had just seen, and the performances I had been lucky enough to watch. This is a play which should be watched by as many people as possible, and shows that James Phillips has a fantastically bright future in the theatre. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.
McQueen is playing at St. James Theatre until June 27, and tickets are available here.