A DESIGNER, A DREAM, A DANCE, A DREAD
“What is it about men with watching eyes…?” asks the ghost of Isabella Blow, she of the troubled soul and hilariously witty hats. One such man was the fashion designer Alexander McQueen, who like his friend and patron finally killed himself. At one point in this fantastical, flawed, but sincere and spectacular play by James Phillips he demonstrates those watching eyes. He invites a crass journalist interviewing him (usual stuff – misogyny, violent perverse imagery, commercial priorities) to describe a nearby woman. She snaps “Thirtyish. Blonde hair. Five foot seven” but he goes off on a page-long riff, lovingly reading character, vulnerability, needs and dreams into the tilt of her head and the angle of her shoulder and leg. And suddenly you are moved to respect the eye of an artist who sees and imagines and wants to give that woman a transformation and a strength. The real McQueen’s sister – who has approved this evocation of the artist – says that he wanted people to be “frightened” of the women he dressed: he had, in childhood, seen her beaten up by an abusive man. Beauty to him was not fragility but power.
The play is not a biography but an imagining, based on the designer’s idea of a woman coming down from a tree in the garden and being empowered by a dress. It uses dramatic projections and marvellous balletic interludes of head-bandaged dancers who are sometimes alive,sometimes mannequins, creating very McQueeny tableaux of pompadours, shiny tutus, wrestling, skeletons, men in weird corsets etc (David Farley designs; Christopher Marney choreographs, and all the music is from the designer’s real shows). In ninety minutes Phillips whirls us through one night in London as McQueen remembers his tailoring apprenticeship, the moment when crazy, visually brilliant Isabella Blow bought up his entire graduation collection, and the experience of coming out front-stage to wave, spent and nervous at the end of his own spectacular shows , “A bloke in the worst clothes in the room, trying to stop his hand from shaking”.
At the heart of it is a very fine performance by Stephen Wight as “Lee” – McQueen’s real name : shaven-headed and booted, a tired, creatively blocked, drunk and druggy at a low point. The girl Dahlia (Dianna Agron from Glee) is less successful, which is not entirely her fault. Phillips has created her as American, gabby, self-absorbed, suicidal and, truth to tell, very annoying. Especially in the long opening scene: it takes great skill to write scenes where a kooky girl invades and challenges a troubled gay man: Breakfast at Tiffany’s it ain’t. There’s one funny line when she mocks him for responding to an intruder by ringing Philip Treacy (“a milliner?” – “He makes very aggressive hats” protests McQueen). But as Dahlia drones on about her loneliness and depression and how she “doesn’t get” Shakespeare and feels like Lee’s twin soul, you itch to slap her.
Things improve the less we see of this mouthy muse – a good scene with his old tailoring boss, and a moving, credible encounter with poor Isabella Blow. But Dahlia becomes central again when we learn that she is, in fact, suicidal and that it is his art (and a fabulous winged gold coat) which may save her, because “There is beauty..Survive the night!”.
The interlude with her, after Blow and being aware of McQueen’s final end, borders on the perilous territory of suicide-glamorizing. It only just dodges it, thanks to the solidity and sincerity of WIght’s performance. Not least in his encomium to his mother: “Brave like a lion. Faces life every day and doesn’t back down She is real. We should learn to live from people, yes?” Yes.
box office 0844 264 2140 to 6 June http://www.stjamestheatre.co.uk