Ruthie's new West-End triumph

Marguerite, by Michel Legrand, Alain Boubil, Claude-Michel Schonberg, Herbert Kretzmer and Jonathan Kent, Theatre Royal, Haymarket, initial run continues until November.

Andrew Clarke

Marguerite, by Michel Legrand, Alain Boubil, Claude-Michel Schonberg, Herbert Kretzmer and Jonathan Kent, Theatre Royal, Haymarket, initial run continues until November.

We knew that Ruthie Henshall could sing but this latest West End tale of love, lust, revenge and betrayal provides Ruthie with a compelling, complex character which gives East Anglia's leading lady a chance to show that she is also a dazzling actor.

The show opens in startling fashion with the lifeless body of Marguerite being held in the arms of her young lover. Lit from above, with most of the stage in darkness, it dramatically propels the audience immediately into the heart of the story.

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As the light levels increase, you can make out bodies lying on the ground behind these tragic figures. Slowly these bodies rise like ghosts and with a flick of a switch on the lighting board you find yourself in the middle of Marguerite's exclusive birthday party.

Marguerite is a show of contradictions. Staged with breath-taking imagination by director Jonathan Kent, it is a tale of passion but the story is delivered in such a way that it has an almost cerebral commentary running alongside which highlights the fickleness of human nature and how easy it is, for some, to turn on their friends when the going gets tough.

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Shows about lust and passion are usually filled with strong, full-voiced numbers, belted out with showman-like bravura - Marguerite is different. Writers and composers Legrand, Boubil, Schonberg, Kent and Kretzmer offer a score which more thoughtful, full of light and shade, the thoughtful, almost Sondheim-like lyrics on occasion, not only advance the action but provide windows into the characters' thought processes.

The songs range from powerful ballads, to jazz numbers, to the delicate China Doll (Marguerite's signature tune), to the complex, oft-reprised company number Day By Day and the fragile, tortured How Did I Get To Where I Am? which, at some points, is delivered in little more than a whisper.

Adapted from Alexander Dumas novel La Dame aux Camelias, which has provided the inspiration for the opera La Traviata, the Garbo classic Camille and Baz Luhrmann's hyper-active musical Moulin Rouge, Marguerite tells the story of one of Paris' leading cabaret performers - a showgirl who was the toast of The City of Light.

After the German occupation she became the mistress of senior German General, referred to as Otto (Alexander Hanson). Around her she has a large entourage of hangers-on and profiteers who she keeps supplied with petrol coupons, lucrative contracts with the German army and various black market goodies.

We first meet them in that opening scene at her 40th birthday party where they are all singing her praises. By the end of the play, it is these very same fair-weather friends who bring about her downfall. But, the play comes to the conclusion that they are not really to blame. What they did was a horrible betrayal but it is just human nature. All those people were survivalists, people without morals, without conviction and would do anything to be on the winning side.

The same people who cursed the British during a spectacularly staged air-raid, now cheered their entry into Paris. Marguerite's misfortune was to forget the rules of survival and fall in love with a young piano player Armand (Julian Ovenden) which leads to all manner of emotional and political complications.

This is very much Ruthie and Julian's show, their characters command the story and our attention but it is not a star vehicle. It is a great ensemble show. We get to know many of Marguerite's shallow entourage, Alexander Hanson brings a surprising depth to a part which could have been a cartoon German general and Julien Ovenden really does capture the naiveté of Armand. There is also a lot of time given to the very affecting sub-plot revolving Armand's sister Annette and her Jewish lover Lucien and their friend Pierrot.

Ruthie's great achievement is that she makes you care for a person who was essentially a collaborator - a good-time girl who slept with a senior German officer to maintain her lavish lifestyle during the austerity of the war years. She makes you feel Marguerite's pain when she realises her actions have left her isolated and have placed her lover and his friends in danger.

The tunes are incredibly hummable and it's great to see a modern musical which not only makes you think but tells a powerful story as well.

Andrew Clarke

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