Theatre Royal Haymarket
1 September 2015
Alexander McQueen once said: ‘I’m going to take you on journeys you’ve never dreamed were possible,’ and that is exactly what happens during this two-hour reflection on his spectacular – if all too brief – career.
Having broken box office records at the St. James Theatre when it premiered in May, this West End transfer of James Phillips’ latest production will delight followers of fashion and intrigue theatregoers, while highlighting fashion’s greatest power – its ability to transform people simply with the right attire.
As I entered the theatre, I was aware of someone on stage but assumed it was a member of the stage crew. However, once settled into my seat, I looked up and was taken aback to see what appeared to be McQueen himself – pacing, tortured and flexing a brown belt between his hands. Stephen Wight’s uncanny resemblance to the British designer, coupled with the reference to his eventual suicide – he hung himself with a brown belt – set the tone for the rest of the show, with its subtle references to aspects of McQueen’s life and Wight’s stirring embodiment of the title role. This is probably not the show for anyone looking for a biographical plot. It’s much more a celebration of the iconic designer’s vision and creativity. That said, it does not ignore his dark nature.
The play is based primarily on an idea that comes from a 2008 catwalk show titled The Girl Who Lived in a Tree. McQueen’s garden featured an old elm tree and his catwalk theme stemmed from a story he had made up about a girl who came down from the tree to find her prince.
On the West End stage, that girl is Dahlia, a fan – played by Carly Bawden – and her prince is a dress, which she intends to steal from the designer’s unlocked workshop. When Dahlia gets caught, she quickly unleashes her American charm and wit, persuading McQueen to take her on a one-night-only tour of his own London. Acknowledging his much documented use of drugs, a trippy journey ensues from Savile Row where he learnt his craft, to nightclubs, the V&A Museum, his mother’s house and lastly a rooftop in his hometown of Stratford, East London. Along the way we come to know a man who was outwardly confident, sometimes to the point of arrogance and yet to those who knew him, could be gentle, devoted and vulnerable.
For newcomers to the McQueen house of fashion, the show acts as a brief introduction to a complicated man with a vast spectrum of work. For any long-term fan, it is littered with references to his back-catalogue. This creates a feeling of being a fashion insider, if you know what you’re looking for. These allusions range from the Armadillo boots that Dahlia first stumbles around the workshop in – taken from his final complete 2010 collection – to the redhead twins from 1999’s Overlook show and the bandage-clad live mannequins of 2001’s Asylum. Some of the final scenes are reminiscent of the rotating platform in his 1999 Spring/Summer show, as Dress No.13 was spray painted to create unique fashion, live in front of a catwalk audience. There is a risk that this could isolate or bypass the audience who haven’t brushed up on their catwalk knowledge but equally, it sparks curiosity and will no doubt encourage theatregoers to delve into the subject post-show.
The show’s conclusion was unexpectedly moving; the audience are addressed while live mannequins troop down the stage in catwalk fashion, with each outfit paying homage to the designer’s exceptional creations. As the cast line up for their final bow, it is impossible to look down the row of beautiful garments and not see what a tragic loss this man was to the fashion world.
Pictured: Stephen Wight as McQueen and Tracy-Ann Oberman as Isabella Blow