The Artist

Adapted from the Michel Hazanavicius original by Drew McOnie and Lindsey Ferrentino
Theatre Royal Plymouth, The McOnie Company, Playful Productions and Bill Damaschke
The Lyric, Theatre Royal Plymouth

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Robbie Fairchild as George Valentin and Thomas Walton with Uggie
Robbie Fairchild as George Valentin and Briana Criag as Peppy Miller
Tiffany Graves as Gertie Gams and Briana Criag as Peppy Miller with the Ensemble and Swing

Quite charming, slick and very clever, Theatre Royal Plymouth’s staging of Michel Hazanavicius’s Oscar-winning film is a dead cert for the West End.

Director and choreographer Drew McOnie (Regent’s Park’s Open Air Theatre) and Lindsey Ferrentino’s adaption departs from the screenplay with not a peppy beauty spot in sight, and relegates silent movie icon George Valentin’s angst-filled downfall to a swift montage to concentrate on more hoofing and newly-invented feline fiend and Coca Cola ad prequel gardener. But the engaging top hat, tails and coat-stand mime remains a highlight, and the cacophony of sound after so much silence is emphatic.

The storyline may be flimsy with little character development and with just an odd glimpse of deeper themes, but really this is all about the glitz, glamour and dance. All spectacle and no heart, but still a clear crowd-pleaser.

Infused with wit and stagecraft, the narrative relies on exaggerated gesture, Variety newspaper headlines and Ash J Woodward’s integrated video of dialogue cards as Tinseltown undergoes a revolution and Peppy Miller—a buoyant, cartwheeling, sweet-voiced Briana Criag (42nd Street, Singin’ In The Rain)—golden curls striking amidst the strict monochrome, becomes the talk of the town. Literally.

It is not the future the speech-resistant George (multiple award-winner for An American in Paris Robbie Fairchild) envisaged, as his derring-do and swashbuckling days recede and his latest, self-financed, watching-paint-dry movie flops and he fades with the bygone silent movie era. Uggie, the real star of the film, here is a scruffy, waggy mutt designed by puppet-master Maia Kirkman-Richards and brought to irrepressible life by Thomas Walton.

Stalwart of small screen and stage Gary Wilmot is an affable director / producer / studio owner Al Zimmer, and even airs his vocals while Rachel Muldoon (Cats, Oklahoma!) verges on the slapstick as Valentin’s celluloid love interest Constance. Tiffany Graves (The Witches, Chicago) makes the absolute most of new larger-than-life celebrity gossip reporter Gertie Gams, while the distinctive-voiced Alexander Bean (Good Morning Britain) is charismatic as loyal chauffeur Clifton, whose drumming skills are showcased with a clever ‘car’ and wayward butterfly.

Set and costume designer Christopher Oram provides an art deco frame for the stage, sliding flats to allow travel from studio to home to picture houses and simple props. The costume palette is unrelieved black, white and shades of grey until the finale when the next big change is heralded with a flash or two of silver, Peppy’s golden frock and a bright-hued bouquet enhanced by Zoe Spurr’s lighting design.

Simon Baker’s sound design and on-stage musicians, under musical director Isaac McCullough, keeps the momentum pacy with a new score by Simon Hale interspersed with classics including “Dancing in the Dark”, “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If You Ain’t Got That Swing)”, “Minnie The Moocher” and “I Wanna Be Loved By You”.

Add Associate Artistic Director of The McOnie Company Ebony Molina as Doris and a high-kicking, dynamic ensemble and all the elements are in place for a stylistic success.

From silent chorus line at the outset to George breaking through his barriers with staccato tap, the no-interval 110 minutes is creative, courageous and innovative. A bit of tightening in the later stages and some chemistry between the protagonists and this is a predicted winner.

Reviewer: Karen Bussell

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