I was having second thoughts about seeing this show because the opening a few weeks ago was greeted with a swathe of very iffy reviews. But I can never resist a Menier Sunday matinee, no matter what the show is; and all I can say is, gentle reader, never trust a critic. They (and I include my humble self here) don’t know what they’re talking about. Close Up – The Twiggy Musical is a complete winner from start to finish. In fact it’s rare to find a production that’s outstanding in virtually every department.
For the youngsters among you, Twiggy was the affectionate nickname given to the young (very young, as it turns out) Lesley Hornby back in the mid 1960s, a naïve girl from Neasden who was catapulted to stardom through a modelling career that has certainly lingered over the decades, as has the affection the British public have for this true sixties icon. Ben Elton’s book and lyrics take the form of a kind of a musical docudrama, with Twiggy herself (as performed by Elena Skye) narrating the story of her life, all pleasingly punctuated by vignettes with her parents, Norman and Nell, her best friends Cindy, Sally and Kay, and the major influences on her life, including manager/lover Justin de Villeneuve and first husband Michael Witney. All this is set alongside a musical kaleidoscope of memorable 60s and 70s hits, played by Stuart Morley’s terrific band, and performed with gusto and emotion from the brilliant ensemble cast.
It’s full of funny asides, with loads of nicely judged interaction with the audience so that the fourth wall is in a virtual state of ruins. Elton’s script depicts Twiggy as her own worst enemy; for example, when everyone tells her that she should do X she always does Y (they told me I should leave him, so what did I do? I married him!) Whilst never shying away from the grim reality that frequently lurks barely beneath the surface – underage sex, mental health issues, business disasters, etc – the characters always remain positive and optimistic, always see the best in a situation, and always look to learn from harsh experience to make things better in the future. This helps towards creating a truly feelgood show, full of humour, emotion and life events that we can all recognise.
All the creative team make massive contributions to the success of the show. Timothy Bird’s set is beautifully simple, with just a projection screen at the back of the stage and a white roll of film running out from it across the floor. Tim Blazdell’s video design utilises that screen and the back projection wall to terrific effect with contemporary images and films. Philip Gladwell’s lighting design is 100% fab, with psychedelic flashes and moods in all the colours of the swinging sixties, and Jonathan Lipman’s costumes are absolutely spot on in reflecting the daring styles, lurid colour combinations, outlandish fabrics and so on that made the 60s so special. Jacob Fearey’s stunning choreography is full of carefree abandon, love of life, and truly feeling the groove; the ensemble dancers fill the relatively small stage of the Menier with an overwhelming sense of exhilaration and fun.
The whole show revolves around Elena Skye’s performance as Twiggy. She completely looks the part, she has an engagingly honest relationship with the audience, and gives an excellent sense of a character who is frequently out of her depth, anxiously biting her lip, but always willing to give-it-a-go. She was by far the best thing about last year’s touring production of We Will Rock You and, if anything, she is even better in Close Up.
There are also tremendous performances from Steven Serlin and Hannah-Jane Fox as her parents. Both are blessed with invigorating and expressive voices; Mr Serlin imbues Norman with true warmth and kindness throughout, and comes across as a Dad in a Million. He’s also a devil with those marvellous impersonations of 60s and 70s interviewers! Ms Fox conveys Nell’s sadness and frustration with her own mental health but also overflows with pride and shows how superbly she would encourage her daughter always to be the best she can. Aoife Dunne gives a hilarious performance as Twiggy’s occasionally foul-mouthed friend Cindy, whilst Beth Devine is also impressive as the ever-supportive Sally, and Lauren Azania AJ King-Yombo excels as her friend Kay, with a beautiful ability to cut the cr*p and tell harsh truths where necessary. Darren Day uses his terrific voice to great effect as Michael Witney, with very moving renditions of Without You and The Air That I Breathe – his Jekyll and Hyde transformations between sober Michael and drunk Michael work very well, and I almost – not quite, but almost – felt a drop of moistness in my eye during his final scene.
Stealing every scene he is in is a tremendously funny and quirky performance by Matt Corner as Twiggy’s Svengali (they hated that word) Justin de Villeneuve. Taking the Mickey out of the character even before he’s on stage, Mr Corner gives him boundless arrogance and endless shiftiness; a brilliant portrayal of someone who blagged their way to success and had absolutely no qualms about creaming the top off other people’s achievements whilst all his own sparkle was a mere façade. Superb.
The show runs at the Menier until 18th November, but there’s barely a ticket to be had; all I can suggest is that you keep an eye out for returns. Surely this must have a life afterwards! A show that sends you out of the theatre bristling with energy and that sense of privilege that you’ve seen something incredible.
Production photos by Manuel Harlan