“I came for a dress”
It has barely been five years since fashion designer Alexander McQueen’s death but 2015 has already seen Savage Beauty, a major retrospective of his work, open at the Victoria and Albert Museum and now McQueen, a biographical fantasia by James Phillips which is taking to the catwalk at the St James Theatre. And in keeping with the edgy energy of the runway shows for which he was renowned, this is no straight play but rather a highly theatrical production that tries to capture some of the imaginative artistry that characterised his work.
Model-like dancers strut their stuff on the stage in striking choreography by Christopher Marney, all made up ; fashionistas in exquisite headwear pose nonchalantly around them, a haunting pair of strange twins skip around the fringes and in the middle is Lee, a London lad done good but in serious danger of being overwhelmed by the empire he’s built around him. Into this mix, from the tree in his garden, comes the troubled Dahlia – maybe a girl, maybe a fairytale creature, either way she’s his companion on a night-time odyssey to get her a dress but which also forces them to confront the demons that haunt them both.
Ostensibly, it’s a journey through the whirlwind of McQueen’s world but ultimately it feels more a justification of the way he lived his life. It opens with a cracking scene set in the tailors where he first learned his craft under the tutelage of a Mr Hitchcock. As we discover titbits about these formative years, including a wry Prince Charles story, there’s a breathtaking construction of a dress on a live model in front of our very eyes. Akin to seeing a master painter with brush in hand, it is most instructive, and indeed moving, to see this artist simply doing what he does best.
Later sequences lack this power as Phillips’ writing veers too close to the hagiographic. A meeting with a journalist at which he analyses the very nature of fashion with just one glance at a woman on a nearby table feels strangely stilted and derivative (of The Devil Wears Prada, of all things). And a reunion with his sometime muse Isabella Blow (an amusing Tracy-Ann Oberman) skirts too tentatively around their troubled relationship and the suicidal depression that afflicted them both. By the time we reach the homecoming of sorts, it actually feels like we know McQueen less than we did 15 minutes into the play.
For me, much of this comes from the ambiguity of Dahlia’s character, Glee star Dianna Agron struggles to make her much more than a blank cypher but that’s as much to do with the frustratingly ephemeral nature of the writing I think. Stephen Wight – bearing an uncanny resemblance to McQueen at times – likewise has to work hard to imbue the eponymous designer with something we can engage with beyond the extraordinary dresses, the armadillo shoes (the recipient of a decent quip), the endless parties, the bottles of expensive vodka – ultimately there’s too little of McQueen the man.