Last week I went to see a new play about Alexander McQueen, at the St James Theatre in Victoria, a guest of the theatre’s lawyers, Devonshires. I had a lovely time and the actors and writers were kind enough to discuss the play with us afterwards.
What I liked
The author James Phillips explained to me that he had initially been asked to write a play about McQueen which he found an impossible task until he read the story of the “girl who came down from a tree”. Then Phillips introduced a dream girl – Dahlia – into Lee’s life and this forms the narrative of the play. He was insightful and interesting to talk to. I asked him what he knew about fashion, designing and clothes making.
“Fashion is a way of talking about stuff” he said, “It definitely is “a thing”.”
As someone who loves theatre, is very interested in McQueen and his amazing artistic output I was thrilled to have the chance to see the show The young actor who played McQueen, Stephen Wight, was incredibly talented and completely convincing. As you can see he looks like a lot like Lee, and his voice, gestures and mood was incredible. The way he touched his head and face, his stance and even ability to capture the slightly manic quality of McQueen was brilliant.
Before I saw Savage Beauty I assumed that Lee had taken his own life at the age of 40 due to depression, loss (especially of his mother) and drugs. I discussed my reaction to the exhibition – which was that Lee died because he finally ran out of creative energy – with Stephen. Maybe he had said all he could. Maybe the sheer exhaustion from having to do brilliant shows, season after season, took its toll, even someone with prodigious energy. “I think it was all those things” Stephen said, commenting on how emaciated Lee was at the end. “He wasn’t eating or sleeping”.
Apart from the quite brilliant performance of Stephen Wright there were other things I loved about this play.
Firstly was when Lee, in his old tailor’s shop, takes a bolt of fabric, rips it, and drapes it on Dahlia. By doing so he manages to reproduce a dress similar to one from McQueen’s collection. The draping is really fun – quite magical – and it is a dress is born before our eyes that is similar to the real thing.
The other thing I really liked was when Dahlia describes a woman in a restaurant as blond and skinny, and Lee then analyses her – her body, the type of skirt she is wearing, how she crosses her legs, how she feels – her history of relationships that are captured in her clothing choices. He provides psychological insight just from looking at her. And it is an interesting and insightful moment in a play with very few of them, so I will treasure it.
The dancers and chorus were talented and beautiful. There was a sequence when the actor-dancer-models catwalked the stage with pieces of blue, diaphanous silk pieces, and also with round white table cloths. I found these scenes suggestive of the process of designing as they gave a sense of fabric draped over a beautiful body and an exciting sense of possibilities.
What worked less well
I was disappointed with the clothes in the show. I am probably being harsh, but as a dress-maker and aficionado of McQeen I was disappointed by the costumes. The piece de resistance gold coat was stiff and, made for a short normally shaped actress, it looked squat. I mentioned to James that I found it unbelievable – it looked like cardboard with gold spray paint – but he explained that it had been faithfully reproduced and had cost £10,000. Of course I know nothing about wardrobe design for the theatre, but I think you could have got something like a gold McQueen coat by using other materials – or chosen other items to be inspired by. The clothes in the show just looked, to me, like poor copies of the items I had seen in the flesh just the other week, just a short walk away.
Similarly the actress who played Isabella Blow was wearing a light weight grey “angel” dress (she is dead in the play after all), and maybe it was made from the finest satin, but it just looked like a badly fitting night-dress. Her hats (Isabella wore hats all the time, and really impressive ones) looked like Debenhams. She was just too big and too mature to be convincing as Isabella, in my view.
I would have like the writer, producer and designers to work together to produce clothes that captured the essence of McQueen rather than try to copy them (can’t be done). For me this heroic attempt to produce verisimilitude meant, in the end, that the play was neither a proper allegorical fairy tale, nor a convincing biographical play. It was summed up for me by the “Falcon” scene.
McQueen loved birds, especially birds of prey, and enjoyed nature very much, deriving much inspiration from watching animals move. The concept of a bird of prey is redolent with dramatic possibility and could perhaps have been a theme. Instead we had a bizarrely wooden hologram of a golden falcon towards the end. It looked like a taxidermist had not quite finished with it, and I almost laughed as the actors discussed the meaning of life as they stared at the “bird”.
It is hard not to be enthusiastic and supportive when one enjoys such a treat. But, frankly, this play struggles.
Writing, casting and putting on a play about a very recently deceased person is fraught with danger – either you do a “mockmentary” or you produce a story that gives some new insights into the life and approach of the subject. Unfortunately I felt that to some extent the three main actors (Lee, Isabella and the imaginary girl-from-tree) were impersonators rather than working with a revealing script. Stephen did this more successfully than Tracy-Ann who plays Isabella. Sometimes her accent was suitably plummy, other times she reminded me of the “I Vont a Vicount” advert from the 1980s. And the casting of an American tree girl, who never really came to life, was probably conceived as a device to get the play on to Broadway, but it just seemed pointless. McQueen was aggressively British, surrounded by dozens of interesting young English women – I wasn’t convinced that his alter-ego would be an American girl.
If you don’t know much about Lee McQueen – the person – this play does give you some basic and accurate biographical information. But if you adore his work it will not give you anything new – you would be much better to spend a couple of hours going round Savage Beauty at the V&A, or reading a book about him. McQueen wows at every turn. Unfortunately this play does not.