Moulin Rouge! Piccadilly theatre, review: the perfect way to celebrate our post-pandemic freedom

Magnifique timing: as the curtain rises on a more carefree, post-pandemic period, those restrictions lifted, a restorative big party has got started in high style in the West End, thanks to the theatrical makeover of a cinematic smash.

The Moulin Rouge, the birthplace of the can-can, grabbed the hyperactive imagination of Australian director Baz Luhrmann, whose 2001 film, starring Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor, helped to re-energise musicals on screen. His most ground-breaking stroke was to fill the air of a dreamlike fin de siècle Montmartre with an array of modern pop hits. The aim: to conjure a sense of the past’s once giddy immediacy using the soundtrack of the present.

On Broadway in 2019, American director Alex Timbers rebooted that celluloid succès fou to bring it to the stage. A fresh script from John Logan, plus an expanded and updated playlist (now 75 songs) resulted in the show scooping 10 Tony awards. That’s impressive in itself, and in many ways the evening lives up to prior hype. Still, I suspect that had the production been mounted in a less fretful wider context, I might take a sniffier view.

For deluxe attention to visual detail it can’t be faulted. The Piccadilly theatre has been transformed, with ambient red lighting a-go-go, into an opulent evocation of the epitome of Parisian nocturnal pleasure. 

Beautiful red neon signage outside lights up the neighbourhood. Inside, installed at high vantage points in the auditorium, are a dinky version of the club’s iconic windmill, languidly rotating, and a giant elephant head – a reference to Kidman’s elephant boudoir in the film (and a real fixture at the nightspot during the 1890s).

The whole experience is awash with sure-footed dance: sensuous, fleet and duly delivering those signature can-can moves in a riot of petticoat lifting and high-kicking. Yet there’s little disguising the slender narrative arc – a tale of doomed, albeit finally requited love told in forlorn flashback by a wide-eyed bohemian with a preternatural gift for song-writing. 

Called Christian – and here conceived as a sensitive American in Paris – he falls for consumptive starlet Satine. She’s pressurised by the cash-strapped emcee Harold Zidler (an impish Clive Carter), into complying with the predatory wishes of a lascivious Duke (moody Simon Bailey). A scuttling Toulouse-Lautrec (Jason Pennycooke, great fun) and a macho Argentinian (a strutting Elia Lo Tauro) help enliven the schematic scene.

The eminently comparable Cabaret, a revival of which opened at the Playhouse Theatre on London’s Victoria Embankment last month, leaves you mulling serious themes as well as humming well-known songs. This lacks such dramatic clout. And McGregor’s charisma and Kidman’s kittenish vulnerability aren’t equalled here. 

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