The week in theatre: Moulin Rouge! The Musical; Conundrum – review

·4 min read

There isn’t any trouble at the mill. At least as far as Alex Timbers’s production of Moulin Rouge! The Musical goes. Picture-book belle époque Paris takes over the Piccadilly: swags of red velvet and ropes of white fairy lights loop around the auditorium; one of the boxes has been made into a champagne bar. On stage, behind the ultra-bright gilt of the proscenium arch, filigree ironwork surrounds enormous scarlet hearts that contract and expand, one within the other, pulsing to almost nonstop love songs.

Actually, a beating, bleeding heart is not what Moulin Rouge! has. True, John Logan’s script, based on Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 film, is sprinkled with emotional triggers. The heroine is consumptive, coughing up into her hanky a red heart neat enough to make any barista proud. The villain who wants to buy her is swaggeringly repellent, and booed panto-style at curtain call. The heroine’s true love is a young composer kept from his adored one by poverty. Yet I doubt any audiences will be squeezing out tears. The plot is not the point of this extravaganza: it’s a whirling machine in which set (Derek McLane), choreography (by Sonya Tayeh, with Sophie Carmen-Jones as the outstanding dancer) and music lavishly fuse.

No sooner have a few notes of one lyric been heard than another takes its place: Lady Gaga, Celine Dion, Beyoncé, Bizet

This mill grinds – and yes, there is a bit of that, what with the fishnets and satin and rhinestones and bustiers and long legs whipping over each other – exceeding small, delivering its songs mostly bitesize.

Simon Bailey’s silky, swaggering baddie gets quite a long crack at Sympathy for the Devil; Liisi LaFontaine, the heroine who swings down (literally) sparkling all over, gives a full rendering of Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend, with no Monroe ambiguity – she makes you believe those stones are indispensable buddies for her bosom. In the discovery of the evening, Jamie Bogyo – beguiling in his stage debut – gently lands Your Song, while Jason Pennycooke’s nicely edgy Toulouse-Lautrec sends up a lovelorn echo.

Mainly, though, you don’t get more than – well – a snatch of each song. In Justin Levine’s speedy musical arrangement, no sooner have a few notes of one lyric been heard than another takes its place: Lady Gaga (Bad Romance), Celine Dion, Beyoncé, Bizet, The Sound of Music, La Vie en Rose and, of course, in a froth of frilly petticoats, Offenbach.

The sharp idea is to create a jukebox musical that is like an actual jukebox rather than a single-authored album, and which sets continual spot-the-song challenges. The idea has a neat twist: the composer hero is dreaming them up for his breakthrough musical. He is going to call it Bohemian Rhapsody.

Throughout the 70-odd minutes of Conundrum, I felt as if I was watching not so much a play as an audition speech, a series of declarations in which both writer (Paul Anthony Morris) and actor (Anthony Ofoegbu) signal their intentions and capacities rather than prove them.

There is an irony here, since Morris’s play – which he directs in a co-production between the Young Vic and its associate company, Crying in the Wilderness Productions – is about the failure to fulfil potential. Ofoegbu plays an exceptionally gifted man, black in a white-run world, who has absorbed the low opinion visited on him by those who have all his life denied him prizes and turned him down for jobs. Continually told to rein in his “lofty ideas”, he has begun to curtail his own aspirations. He talks to a therapist online, is occasionally jabbed by a man in a white coat, but mostly paces around, urging himself to an existential confrontation: “Who am I?” There is pain and psychological truth, but no nuance. Nothing is merely suggested; every doubt is excavated, often more than once. Even the slate floor, covered in his handwritten comments, adds to the repetition.

Ofoegbu, who, apart from rare appearances by the jabbing man, is alone on stage, is given plenty of opportunity to display his ingenuity. Patiently forceful, he clambers over imaginary obstacles, beats his arms against a hostile wind, produces a childish voice and a wild, desperate one. Yet he cannot make a compelling character out of a blizzard of abstractions.

Star ratings (out of five)
Moulin Rouge ★★★★
Conundrum ★★

  • Moulin Rouge is at the Piccadilly theatre, London, until 28 May

  • Conundrum is at the Young Vic, London, until 4 February

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