In June 2016, I threw myself into an immersive theatre…
McQueen is a new play by James Phillips. The production takes inspiration from the late designer’s runway shows, mixing fact and fantasy to create a ‘beautiful and haunting voyage’. It takes quite a few liberties, suggests Stewart Who?
I knew Lee quite well. We spoke several times in the week prior to his suicide. I miss him, terribly. Occasionally, the posthumous McQueen noise has felt like a relentless agitator of my sadness at his loss.
At the same time, it’s curiously satisfying to see a friend become almost canonised, anointed as a genius, hailed as a unique visionary. Such plaudits hardly cheered him when alive, so there’s no great misfortune that he’s dead to all the fuss. The tragedy is much bigger than that.
On hearing about this play, my instinctive reaction was one of mild revulsion. After some reflection, I surmised that Lee would find the concept hilarious, if rather embarrassing. So, it was time to get down off one’s high horse and check out the highly anticipated production.
McQueen hinges on an unlikely conceit that a young woman called Dahlia (Dianna Agron of Glee fame) has broken into the designer’s home in order to steal a dress. Caught in the act, McQueen adopts Dahlia as a muse and takes her for a night on the town, morphing into a fantastical recollection of his life and work.
Thin and creaky
The burglary is a thin and creaky device, which might have sufficed in more skilful hands. Sadly, the play falls short of delivering decent entertainment or an enlightening window onto the man and his legacy.
Diana Agron as Dahlia, the light fingered fan, is curiously flat and unbelievable. She lacks the passion of a genuine fashion victim and fails to convey any conviction or complexity to a character who’s clearly disturbed.
While Lee was wary of gushing fanatics, he was drawn to the damaged, unconventional and bold. Agron’s Dahlia is easy on the eye, but exhausting and woefully dull. Lee would have told her to fuck off within minutes.
Stephen Wight as McQueen is astounding. He looks and sounds so much like the designer that it borders on disturbing.
As the audience files into the auditorium, he’s seen centre stage, in a dimmed spotlight, anxiously fidgeting and ominously toying with a leather belt. This pre-show business conveyed more about the designer’s persona than the entire production.
This silent solo was a gripping and ghoulish prelude. As chattering girls and flapping queens fought to find their seats, Wight proved an absorbing distraction.
Awkwardly twitching in the gloom, for those few minutes, his resemblance to McQueen caused palpitations and some melancholy turmoil.
It’s a shame that once the show started, that symbolic depth and darkness gave way to froth and watery fantasy.
Tracey-Ann Oberman turns out an impressive Isabella Blow and makes one yearn for a show based solely on her fractious relationship with McQueen.
In the play’s most engaging scene, Blow berates McQueen from beyond the grave, while bitterly lounging on a chaise longue. We’ll never really know the details of how their complex relationship disintegrated, but at least this projected concoction felt vaguely conceivable.
McQueen’s shows were known for their level of drama, shock and expectation and while the ensemble dancers gamely strut and pose with nods to the runway, their efforts feel gently suburban.
Perhaps that’s the biggest offence with regards to this production- it’s a warm confection of Alexander McQueen, lacking in bite or tension. The designer’s vision was extreme, savage and indulgent. The man himself was an explosive cocktail of quiet insecurity, hidden sensitivity and sporadic viciousness.
There was never a dull moment in McQueen’s company and yet this show manages to drain the corpse of its poison and buff it into blandness. His family might be happy with this sanitised tiptoe over the McQueen remains, but it’s a poor whimsy and makes terrible theatre.
One could forgive McQueen’s creators for not dwelling on the darkness had they at least delivered a cracking text. Unfortunately, if the McQueen name was removed from this play, it would be an empty yawn, lacking integrity or dramatic punch.
If you’re looking for an understanding of the man and his work, join the queues for Savage Beauty at the V&A. It’s a testament to both the brilliance of that exhibition and the failure of this show, that lifeless dummies clothed in McQueen’s work can both thrill and induce tears of awe. In stark contrast, this show’s a crying shame.
McQueen is at the St. James Theatre until 27 June