Fashion Freak Show
Reviewed – 19th July 2022
“the show is a glorious tableau of an extraordinary life and career”
Part revue, part cabaret, part catwalk, part circus; part song and dance, part autobiography, part drama, comedy, and a smattering of personal tragedy: Jean Paul Gaultier’s “Fashion Freak Show” explodes onto the London stage like nothing you’ve seen before. For just a couple of hours we are taken on a magical, whirlwind tour of half a century of culture that is “Gaultier”; the enfant terrible who somehow weaved his way into the mainstream psyche. His love affair with celebrity is teasing and affectionate, but his love for fashion is real and enduring. And by the end we have learned that ‘Freakshow’ is not just an alliterative marketing tagline, but a genuine commentary on the world we live in.
It opens with the rather grand assertion that the show is going to “trawl inside his head, his body, and penetrate his soul”. We pocket the claim with the Eurotrash wink with which it is delivered and then settle back for the spectacular journey through Gaultier’s life and career. There is no narration. No libretto. It is a feast for the senses. Film and music have influenced Gaultier’s career as much as fashion has, and “Fashion Freak Show” reveals how much he has influenced film, music and fashion in response.
It begins with his childhood teddy bear, who wore the conical bra decades before Madonna did. We catch glimpses of pivotal moments of his school life, the Folies Bergère in the sixties, his ‘grand amour’, his first fashion show, his brushes with the fashion police, the move to London. Punk, New Wave, ‘nightclubbing’ and the rise and fall of the eighties. AIDS. All the highs, the lows; the scandals and the triumphs; the public and the private. It is thrillingly brought to life by the eighteen strong cast, an impossibly talented troupe of singers, dancers, actors and acrobats. Superbly choreographed by Marion Motin there isn’t a step out of place.
But let’s not forget the theatricality of the costumes. Sensational, beautiful, grotesque, humorous. Serious and ridiculous, and ground-breaking – it is all on show. Outrage is a theme Gaultier seems very comfortable with. He is fearless, a spirit that extends beyond provocation to his ability to poke fun at himself too. A recurring send-up of US Vogue editor, Anna Wintour, is filled with teasing affection, brilliantly crafted to expose the humour alongside the masked mutual admiration.
Matching the sheer extravagance of the performances is the positivity of the message – “Yes you can!” – which is the thread of the show; and of Gaultier’s life. He is a man whose dreams have become a reality. Yet juxtaposed with this are moments of heart-rending poignancy. A slowed-down, a Capella rendition of Cole Porter’s “I Got You Under My Skin” accompanies a haunting ballet depicting the tragic death of Gaultier’s long-term partner, Francis Menuge. Rumour has it that Gaultier is to retire from staging live events, sparking the prospect that “Fashion Freak Show” could be his swan song. If so, we are still soothed by the knowledge that he will still be weaving his magic behind the scenes. But for now, the show is a glorious tableau of an extraordinary life and career. Four years in the making, it has grown from its cabaret roots at the Folies Bergère in Paris to the multi-media experience at the Roundhouse.
Protégés and icons appear throughout, as lookalikes or projections, highlighting the extent of his influence. Among the many; Madonna, Catherine Deneuve, Prince, Grace Jones (who, incidentally, was also in the audience). References fall thick and fast; from the grit of Sid Vicious to the bubble-gum of Plastic Bertrand; film-noir to Rocky Horror; the Roaring Twenties to today’s somewhat simpering twenties. It is all encompassing. “Beauty is in everything”. Gaultier is famous for his outspokenness against cosmetic surgery. Whilst in no way judgemental of people who choose that path, he prefers to celebrate the human form as it comes – in all shapes, sizes and colours. Towards the climax of the evening the ‘Freak Show’ really kicks in. As the costumes become increasingly grotesque, the underlying beauty is enhanced. Especially when the cloaks are stripped away. “We are all freaks. Freak is chic”
There is nothing like this in town at the moment. “Fashion Freak Show” is irrefutably unmissable. “What you’re seeing tonight is my childhood dream” speaks the man himself. It is safe to say that this show is everybody’s dream. Go and live it!
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Mark Senior
Fashion Freak Show
Roundhouse until 28th August
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The End of the Night | ★★ | Park Theatre | May 2022
The Man Behind the Mask | ★★★★ | Churchill Theatre | May 2022
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