McQueen, a name both iconic and embedded in fashion and British culture, dominates the pillars of Theatre Royal Haymarket. Whilst the audience take to their seats they are presented to a pacing Stephen Wight, who takes on the task of playing the designer. The intimate design of the theatre provides a warm feel, although Wight’s presence, and the deep blue spotlight that appears on him in shards, compresses the heat. As the auditorium doors close, and the lights dim, the audience become trapped in the mind and world of tormented brilliance.
The life of Alexander McQueen is so rich with stories that playwright James Phillips was spoilt for choice. McQueen is set in 2008 before his Autumn/Winter collection The Girl Who Lived in the Tree and a year after the suicide of his dear friend and fellow icon Isabella Blow. In a dark basement and on a cocktail of alcohol and drugs, McQueen’s struggle to create a concept for his next collection is thrown into further disruption when Dahlia (Carly Bawden) is caught intruding. Having convinced McQueen that she is in search for a dress, Dahlia and McQueen embark on an endearing and endangering journey across London that is the landscape for McQueen’s internal turmoil.
The mind of Alexander McQueen is presented through a cast of dancers, whose defined physicality’s and disciplined movements are beautifully menacing. The ensemble perfectly capture the chaos of McQueen’s mind and the beauty of his work, as they interchange between transporting props and transforming into models. The dancers command the stage as one duo dance whilst adopting the pointe technique. The ensemble moves with such vigour that they are terrifyingly camouflaged among the mannequins that are hidden amongst them on stage. The ensemble presents a dilemma to the audience, who will be forced to decipher between Alexander’s reality and fantasy.
The second half of the play reveals Dahlia’s true intentions of wanting to be seen in a dress she can die in, and presents Bawden as a physical representation of McQueen’s mental state. The notion of being seen in a world in which you already exist mirrors Tracy-Ann Oberman’s contribution to the play, and the life of her character Isabella Blow. Isabella, anguished in finding “a home in a world she influenced” and the depression that consumed her, provides insight into the profound companionship she had with McQueen. Although Oberman previously made her debut on stage as part of the ensemble, the audience meet Isabella when a guilty Alexander attempts to make peace with both her and himself. The pair reminisce and confront one another on a white boudoir chair (similar to a psychiatrist’s) that embodies the dynamics of their relationship: both Blow and McQueen were connected by fashion and their mental illness.
The extravagance of Alexander McQueen’s designs defines his legacy to the world, but the play reveals to the audience the complexities of his personality that made him Lee. The collaboration of director John Caird and Phillips’s dialogue showcase the designer in captivating glory. The scene where McQueen intricately analyses a figure in the crowd displays the ambiguity between madness and genius that made him an icon. Phillips’s characterisation of Dahlia as the stereotypically energetic American provides depth to her underlying suicidal thoughts, and reflects David Howe’s choice of stage lighting. Blue spotlights dominate the stage, encouraging contrasting feelings of peace and despair. The energy of the cast’s performances are heightened by glossy moving backdrops that represent London.
In the play, McQueen refers to clothes as a weapon, and the combination of stylised visuals with taboo issues of suicide and depression leaves McQueen a threat to the West End. The play concludes with Dahlia living and McQueen creating and, managing to avoid a biographical depiction of his life, Caird and Phillips focus on a period of time and pay homage. The choice of music (which were all songs used in McQueen’s shows), the replica of McQueen’s clothing (which included his Armadillo boots, created for his last fashion show), and the striking resemblance between Wight and McQueen makes McQueen a fashion show in which Alexander is finally the star.
McQueen is playing at the Theatre Royal Haymarket until 7 November. For more information and tickets, see the Theatre Royal Haymarket website. Image by Theatre Royal Haymarket.