Ben Elton’s bants-heavy compilation musical about Sixties survivor Twiggy is pretty thin stuff. It slots period-appropriate pop hits into an abbreviated, sycophantic telling of the Neasden-born model’s first 33 years, stopping abruptly in 1982.
It’s strident, squawky and front-loaded with irony, the cast joshing and eye-rolling with the audience from the start. In the lead role, Elena Skye has a strong, rocky voice and a sarcastic, gorblimey swagger, but she’s a tentative dancer and has been given some truly terrible wigs.
Elton’s enchantment with Swinging London is tempered throughout by a sheepish commentary from the cast, telling us how empty the era’s promises of equality turned out to be, and how Twiggy was gaslit and exploited. Jacob Fearey’s choreography is capable but uninspiring, the costumes passably stylish knock-offs of Sixties fashions. Some of the songs are on the nose: Downtown, The “In” Crowd, Harry Nilsson’s Without You. But blimey, no one needs to hear Manfred Mann’s Ha Ha! Said the Clown ever again.
This feels like a fumbled opportunity because Twiggy was and is a phenomenon. Born Lesley Hornby in 1949, she was named “The Face of 1966” by the Daily Express for her androgynous figure and cropped hair and formed part of the working-class wave that briefly surged through British culture. She had innate East End style and chutzpah and, despite brutal setbacks, reinvented herself as a film actress, singer, musical theatre performer and, eventually, a Dame. “Now THAT’s posh,” as her onstage mum says.
But in this production, which Elton also directs, every aspect of her life is treated with the same mixture of mawkishness and arch jocularity. After ECT for depression Twiggy’s mum delivers self-mocking witticisms. Twiggy’s first boyfriend and self-appointed manager Justin is a barrow-boy Austin Powers: her first husband Michael (Darren Day, on autopilot) a clichéd Jekyll-and-Hyde drunk. Childhood friends wag their fingers and tell Twiggy that the men’s behaviour will be identified as coercive control one day.
The thing is, video footage projected on the back wall – showing the young Twiggy besting Woody Allen when he tries to humiliate her, singing on a 1970s Top of the Pops, and dancing at the 1982 Royal Variety Performance – feels much more vibrant than the live action onstage. Lesley Hornby’s life is undoubtedly worth celebrating. But Elton, always enslaved to the punchline, the glib aside and the obvious narrative option, clearly isn’t the man to do it.
Menier Chocolate Factory, to November 18; buy tickets here