Thursday, 21 July 2022

REVIEW: Jean Paul Gaultier's Fashion Freak Show at the Roundhouse

When I first stumbled across a Jean Paul Gaultier documentary as a young theatre kid in Australia, I was entranced by his creations. I sat glued to the TV watching how they told a story, embraced the eccentric and evoked a culture that I was excited by. Just as his work imprinted on me, Gaultier has given permission to countless people all around the world to dream, provoke and express themselves through fashion. Each of his pieces is a performance, full of movement that can change the space it exists in. It, therefore, seems only right for him to arrive at his latest masterpiece, Fashion Freak Show, a full-blown stage spectacle featuring his iconic couture as a vehicle for dance, circus, clown, burlesque and video. This is a visceral experience not to be missed and as this grown-up theatre kid, sits in the London Roundhouse theatre many, many years later since her first encounter with JPG, surrounded by an eclectic mix of fabulous people, it can only be described as a surreal and iconic moment to bask in.

The show is the story of JPG’s life, the culture he has experienced and generally an insight into how he sees the world, which unsurprisingly, is largely through fashion. However, what is so enchanting about this concept is that we also get an insight into the raw inspiration that has inspired him for so many years. From The Folies Bergére who he was introduced to by his grandmother as a young boy to Josephine Baker, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, gender-challenging rockstars such as David Bowie, Boy George and Grace Jones, the British Punk scene, sexual liberation and more.

The performance is broken up into four parts. It begins by introducing us to a 9 years old JPG adorning his beloved teddybear Nana, his first transgender heroine, with a cone bra (that’s right Madonna was not the first to wear it) and then takes us on a wild journey through his early runway shows, moments of love, party days, scandal, the AIDS epidemic and general craziness which is all, of course, signposted by his iconic looks. In between epic dance and musical numbers are interludes which include the fashion Police, a French Anna Wintour who ensues her commentary and influence over JPG’s work (a wonderful clown moment) and video cameos of notable French celebrities including Catherine Deneuve and two songs by Catherine Ringer who was the first person to wear one of JPG’s corsets in the video for Marcia Baila in 1984.

The overall message embedded into the show is that everyone is beautiful and it being press night, at the end of the show, the man himself came on stage to reiterate just that. I went with my brother to the show and he said something very interesting after. As a CIS male who does not ascribe to the general tropes of masculinity, he felt so included. As a female feeling the same towards my femininity, I can honestly say the same. It was humbling to see someone with such success, maintain a passion for making an audience feel so seen. As we made our way home, the pair of us were buzzing about that. 

JPG transcends all stereotypes, including gender binary. A stand-out scene that demonstrates this is during a homage to Josephine Baker. We see a Joséphine emerge with the energy of the female icon, topless and wearing her iconic banana skirt. She is then joined by Joséphin dressed exactly the same. The pair oscillates between the masculine and feminine as they become both and neither. A burlesque act performed by Maud Amour is an example of a woman who owns her sexuality and during the countless runway sequences, gender-bending outfits will excite everyone, trust me!

Choreographer Marion Motin has worked for names including Madonna and Christine and The Queens. She is a newer addition to the JPG team but it is safe to say a kindred spirit to his mind. She brings the tableaus that exist in JPG head into reality and encourages quality of movement parallel to the quality of the fabrics of his creations. The architecture of the clothes influences the movement and character of the dancers which lends itself to mask and more physical theatre over traditional dance. The dancers themselves are all cast perfectly and not afraid to embrace and find beauty in everything, including the grotesque. This is particularly highlighted during the plastic fantastic interlude which resembles bouffant. It comments on plastic surgery and the obsession with perfection through grotesque costumes and mask-like constructions to disfigure the performers.

The production, in general, is of high quality with the Roundhouse acting as a perfect host to hear the music arranged by three-time Grammy Award winner Nile Rogers. The set and video design by Justin Nardella and Renaud Rubiano flow together well as does the lighting design by Per Hording. 

This is an honest piece of work. It is indulgent as all hell but at the same time so generous. For anyone who is a fan of Jean Paul Gaultier, this is a passionate journey into his mind but, ultimately, this show is for even those who know very little about his work. On a personal level, it was very special to me, however, trying to be as objective as possible, I stand by my five-star rating because I can not imagine it being anything less than what was intended to be and it is executed with the quality of a master designer.

Review by Stephanie Osztreicher

Rating: ★★★★★
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