McQueen is a creative review of the life of tragic fashion designer Alexander (Lee) McQueen (Stephen Wight), as told to Dahlia (Dianna Agron), a fictional girl who apparently breaks into his house (or does she?) because she needs a dress. Like Lee, Dahlia is directionless and clinically depressed. He takes her on an adventure through his life story, in one night, during which time he makes her a dress which brings out her unique beauty – helps her see who she really is. There are various hints, but we are never actually told this.
The story is a vehicle, perhaps an allegory for McQueen’s artistic principle that fashion is the purest form of self-expression – how you dress (or in Lee’s case, the dresses he designs) expresses what you are. When Lee doesn’t have creative inspiration, he loses his way.
In a series of scenarios from his life, Lee effectively turns himself inside out to his mysterious intruder and they help each other through the night.Why is this review appearing on Terpsichore, a blog about dance? Well, many of the scenes include dreamlike sequences where a group of dancers depict mannequins, wearing McQueen’s stylishly eccentric creations. The mannequins are his muses and Terpsichore is the muse of dance. David Farley’s production design and Christopher Marney’s choreography were striking from the first scene. I loved the opening sequence, where at some points it was hard to differentiate between dancers and mannequins. The dancers were all well cast, as they looked like living mannequins and they moved together beautifully as a group, with points of choreographic interest – posing and turning with lifts and exquisite silhouettes at different parts of the stage. Their skill belied the challenge of working with a relatively small space and a busy, changing set. In a later, party scene, the mannequins appear again, now representing beautiful party people – models perhaps – dancing and swaying around the stage in couples and formations, drawing Lee and Dahlia deeper in to the night.
The staging was perfect, and the lighting created and intensified the atmosphere, which was dark, but somehow optimistic. I found a balcony scene overlooking London particularly striking. Another fabulous creative device was when Lee fits a beautiful dress onto Dahlia on stage, transforming her from an obsessive fan to a late night muse who helps Lee find the inspiration that keeps him alive. This was so impressive – a nice detail was that he left one pin in the shoulder strap.A lively, exquisitely designed production with fantastic set and production design, beautiful dancing and choreography and some excellent acting including a great Isabella Blow cameo from Tracy-Ann Oberman is let down by a plot full of holes. Here are just a few. Who is Dahlia? Is she real, or imaginary? Is she his alter ego? There are many references to her being already there, a doppelganger etc. Well if she is, it’s a bit bizarre that she’s an ‘I want, I want’ person, when Lee himself was obviously an ‘I get, I get’ person. Also if she is part of him, how come he has to tell her his life story? She’d already know all of that!
Dahlia makes a lot of suggestions that she is part of Lee, or his alter ego, but a lost American girl seems a strange alter ego for a talented, tortured designer at the height of his fame.The reason the plot holes are so easy to spot is that the play is set between Isabella Blow’s suicide and Lee’s own. By this time his talent was globally recognised and he was at the pinnacle of his career. The programme included a useful timeline of his life, so when you read the programme, you wonder about the inaccuracies in the play. For example, Lee wasn’t ‘made’ by Isabella – he was a successful tailor before he was accepted to study on the MA course at St Martin’s and she bought everything in his graduate show. While in this play Isabella claims to be his Svengali, in reality she was a catalyst for his second career.
The play makes no reference to Lee's time at St Martin’s or his widespread recognition - including as British designer of the year – and only touches lightly on his serious issues with drugs.The theme of self-harm and suicide – Dahlia gives no reason why she is so troubled – is treated lightly given Lee’s actual demise. The play ends on a possibly optimistic note, which is a plus point. Dahlia says she has had the best night of her life, which suggests that she is an individual in her own right. If she signifies part of Lee’s character, surely wandering around London reminiscing about his past to an imaginary friend is unlikely to be the best ever night for an internationally acclaimed fashion designer.
Even if you excuse the plot holes as artistic license, the wordy script made several scenes feel unnecessarily long. I would pick out in particular the scene in Lee’s dying mother’s house which could have been cut to less than half the length to get the message across. This was towards the end of the play and there was a distinct shuffling among audience members – the seats are not particularly comfortable.Overall it was an entertaining show. The staging was beautiful and Stephen Wight was genuinely convincing as Lee McQueen. It helps that he really does look like him. He delivered his lines well – even the clunky ones – and he was on stage for the entire 1 hour and 40 minutes. Dianna Agron, however, was less impressive. At first I tended to agree with some critics who wrote that her acting seemed wooden, but her obvious professionalism throughout made me think that this is how she had been asked to portray the character Dahlia who would have fitted nicely into Twin Peaks.
And there was indeed a David Lynch quality about McQueen. The acting was generally pretty good, and I liked Tracy-Ann Oberman’s excellent take on Isabella Blow, though again half the number of words would have got the message across. I particularly liked her wafting around elegantly in the background of the dance sequences and other scenes.I also have to declare a personal interest in McQueen, the play. My friend Amber Doyle is the dance captain, and I go to her ballet classes, so I was anticipating some excellent dancing. And I was certainly not disappointed. The perfect stylish dancing and choreography was one of the very best things about this show. I also felt that some reviewers were a bit harsh about the actors, particularly Stephen Wight, who I thought did a good job with an unwieldy script.
McQueen’s problem is that it is a hybrid – it’s not a musical, and a contingent in the audience who had come to see Agron based on her performance in Glee must have been disappointed that her only bit of singing is a few snatches of Billy Joel’s ‘Always a woman to me’, a song which I unfortunately associate with the John Lewis ad a few years ago.McQueen is not a biography either, because it’s highly selective – it misses out important facts about McQueen’s life and influences and half the story is about an imaginary character, or doppleganger. Nor is it a ballet, either although much of the story is told in the dance sequences. All this means reviewers struggle to place it.
McQueen is an entertaining, beautifully staged tribute to a tortured and sadly missed talent and it successfully captures the strange and wonderful world of fashion – its creativity and its cruelty. It’s been described as self-indulgent, but what is fashion – and indeed much art too – if it is not self-indulgent? That’s the beauty of it! If you like fashion and dance, you’ll like McQueen. I did.NB, The image, by photographer Sam Mardon, shows the theatre’s special McQueen cocktails. This is because I had asked a contact at the theatre whether it was ok to take photos at any point and was told roundly that anyone with a camera would be escorted out. Having read some mainstream reviews I had considered putting a camera in my bag to facilitate an early exit! I’m glad I didn’t. The photo was taken on an iPhone before the show.
McQueen is at St James Theatre, London until 27 June. https://www.stjamestheatre.co.uk/theatre/mcqueen/