Raised in the East End and trained on Saville Row, fashion designer Alexander McQueen was an icon of creative London in an era when Cool Britannia ruled the waves. James Phillips’ soulless bio-play “McQueen” and, worse still, John Caird’s glossy production are symbolic of what London has become since then: modish, unfeeling and out of touch with reality. This is theater for oligarchs’ wives. It looks impressive, but it’s insubstantial; all brand, no craft. That actor Stephen Wight should wring a tender portrait of a troubled man out of such crass writing, surrounded by tech and opposite the expressionless void of co-star Dianna Agron (“Glee”), is nothing short of a marvel.
Imagine Alexander McQueen’s Wikipedia page crossed with “A Christmas Carol” and you get a sense of proceedings. The play takes the form of a dark night of the soul, with Wight’s McQueen on the brink of suicide, winding a belt round his hand, when a young woman named Dahlia (Agron) breaks into his East London warehouse in search of a dress.
She’s a dark-heart as well, with perfect, prim little red scars on her wrists and an overriding sense of cynicism. The pair embark on a whistle-stop tour of McQueen’s London — first to Anderson & Sheppard, where he trained as a cutter, then on to A-List parties in the V&A, lunchtime interviews and, finally, the Stratford of McQueen’s childhood. Every location offer excuses for exposition and extraneous biographical information. There’s no other point to the plot.
Like McQueen’s own designs, the piece flirts with death. The spirit of model Isabella Blow (Tracy-Ann Oberman) glides in on a white leather chaise longue, reading her own coffee-table biography. Dahlia takes an overdose of Neurofen and turns out to be — I think, though it’s not really clear — the depressive side of McQueen’s own personality, before vanishing with the morning.
Phillips’s writing is at its best when musing on fashion. It talks about clothes and cuts with real poise and fervor. McQueen – who goes by his birth name of Lee for most of the play — discusses dresses that “cheat” new bodies for their wearers, outfits that become armor or extend a personality into sculptural form. However, the writing is less good when it strays onto aesthetics, discussing beauty in the most stewed of terms, and by the time it tackles depression and self-harm, it’s positively offensive, possibly even dangerous, in its triteness.
It’s not helped by Caird’s direction, which appears more intent on dazzling with design than taking care of its subject matter. Huge video walls glide across the stage to conjure monochrome panoramas of London locations. David Farley’s glossy design has the oil-slick sheen of an overpriced Mayfair nightclub, and next to costumes that replicate McQueen’s famous designs, it looks tacky in the extreme. An ensemble of dancers cross the stage every so often, adding an edge of the catwalk, but mostly they’re nothing but set dressing.
It’s Wight’s low-key, deft performance that holds the whole thing together and, indeed, prevents the piece from entirely defiling the man it sets out to honor. Usually cast as a cheeky chappie, Wight’s a somewhat surprising choice for the depressive designer, but with his head close-shaved and the trace of a trim goatee, he’s the spitting image of him. Mellow and gaunt, caught in the whir of his own thoughts, he’s ever so slightly itchy in his own skin. However, when he rustles up a dress live, from scratch no less, he comes alive with the task in hand, assessing each cut of cloth like a chess master plotting several moves ahead.
Agron, however, is little more than a clothes horse. She plays up Dahlia’s numbness and ends up vocally monotone, facially inert and deeply unwatchable. Still, her presence has helped McQueen to a record advance for the St James, proving that today’s London has more money than taste.