Stephen Wright and Tracy-Ann Oberman in McQueen Play, London

Lee McQueen is pacing his Mayfair studio, waiting for inspiration. He is surrounded by his ‘ideas’: a gold skeleton, a mock-up of the infamous Armadillo shoes, a dress from his Spring/Summer 2001 VOSS collection made of red and black ostrich feathers and microscope slides, dyed red to give the impression of blood underneath. And he can’t think of anything.

Or he can’t until Dahlia, a socially awkward American ‘fan’ who’s been watching him from a tree outside (alluding to McQueen’s the Girl Who Lived in The Tree collection) breaks in and demands that he make her a dress. The unlikely duo then embark on a journey across London, visiting places of significance to McQueen – from the Savile Row tailors where the young designer was an apprentice, to the home of his adored, terminally ill mother.

James Phillips’ play, now newly adapted for The Haymarket in the West End after its world premiere at the St James theatre earlier this year, is an odyssey that is Dickensian and dangerous. With Stephen Wight as a sharp, funny, volatile and vulnerable Lee McQueen, the play marks five years since the now legendary designer hung himself with his ‘favourite’ brown belt (an item McQueen, played brilliantly by Stephen Wight, eerily brandishes in the opening and closing scenes) and is pitched as a ‘fairy-tale’, exploring the mind of the troubled creative genius.

Of course, like any fairy-tale, it doesn’t take long for the play’s psychological undertones to shine through. In one scene, McQueen explains that a dress is “the world as you want it to be”. In another, he berates Isabella Blow (the woman who discovered McQueen), played by Tracy-Ann Oberman for “leaving”. “I was very brave to hold on for as long as I did”, she replies. Shortly after, it transpires that the waifish Dahlia is suicidal and that she represents the haunted designer’s alter ego. Consequently, it falls to him to draw her back from the brink.

It is not the plot but the aesthetics, the choreography, the design, the lighting and the music, all of which are reminiscent of the extravagant dark fantasies staged by McQueen himself, that bring this play to life. Scene transitions are heralded by the arrival of mannequin-inspired dancers in various stages of undress. They contort themselves around the characters and morph from mannequins to catwalk-models in time to a score that juxtaposes Marilyn Manson’s ‘Beautiful People’ with Handel’s ‘Zadok the Priest’, tracks taken directly from McQueen’s catwalk shows. His shows have also clearly inspired the staging; the backdrop to the drama is a huge screen on which, in an allusion to McQueen’s 2008 and 2011 shows, butterflies, wings and flashing lights are projected.

It’s these details that, like the Alexander McQueen catwalk shows, make McQueen a visual feast for the eyes with all of the romance, melancholy and revolution of the late designer’s work. Although elements, admittedly, are caricaturised (Oberman’s portrayal of fashion icon Isabella Blow, for instance) it is still a play that explores our continued fascination with one of the 21st century’s greatest creative minds and that leaves us with Lee McQueen, alone on stage, raising a shaking hand to thank an audience he never wanted to perform for in the first place.

Words by Morwenna Jones

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