Did you know that Madonna’s iconic conical bra was never originally designed for her, but instead was imagined and created first for a young boy’s teddy bear? Nana was the first known transgender bear of her kind and also the first childhood creation of the French fashion titan.
Jean-Paul Gaultier’s Fashion Freak Show, a biographical fashion feast, is in its latest home at Camden’s iconic Roundhouse, and brings a level of production that such a world famous venue demands. Think European cabaret channelled through Vegas spectacle on a grand scale.
Fashion Freak Show’s production truly is an exciting visual display of fashion, dance and circus, and the production values which support it are spectacular but by relying so heavily on eye-popping visuals much of the show’s appeal remains on the surface.
High Fashion is of the moment. As a viewer, you have an instant response. You either like it or you don’t. And Fashion Freak Show very much parallels that. You can either plunge into the vision that it offers or you won’t.
A biographical show will always have chronology and storytelling at its core, but reflecting the eccentricity and whimsy of its creator, the show relinquishes a more conventional continuity path which would lead its audience through the storyline.
The show’s narrators flip from in-person to pre-recorded video and each are presented so differently that the effect is either reflective of the chaotic, whirlwind of Gaultier’s life or potentially rather difficult to know what is happening. The show transports us through the decades of JPG’s life; punk, Madonna, nightclubbing, Grace Jones, frenemy Anna Wintour, Eurotrash, Karl Lagerfeld are all present and correct.
There is a chaotic energy to the evening with the stellar ensemble giving (and often baring) their all in service of this giddy, kaleidoscopic trip through the world of Gaultier. If you thought some nudity and scenes of a PG nature might colour Freakshow, Gaultier floods the show with it, proving you can still be an enfant terrible even at 70!
The incredibly talented cast of dancers come into their own in the second of Fashion Freak Show’s two Acts when their individual creativity and talent explodes across the stage as they perform their own tricks in a gang-style dance mashup of music and choreographic style.
The show is filled with classic dance and pop hits from the last five decades. Bangers from Chic, Bowie, George Michael and Prince will leave you feeling buzzed and ready to hit the clubs. The vocal talents of the extraordinary live production singers were flawlessly produced by the sound team at the Roundhouse and they were a true highlight of the production as a whole.
Of course, any show which journeys through the 80’s and 90’s would be remiss to miss out the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Reflecting on the death of his long-term partner, Francis Menuge, the show delivers a beautiful and sensitive moment of focus. An evocative solo contemporary dance to a darker-paced a Capella interpretation of “I Got You Under My Skin” cuts through the absurdity of fashion extravagance and packs an unexpected emotional punch.
While there’s no faulting the visual bravura of the production, you may find it lacking a certain je ne sais quoi. Just as every haute couture collection has a thematic through line to tie disparate elements together, so too Freakshow needs a glue to bring all these wonderful and exciting artistic talents together and make them cohesive and exciting.
A show whose subject matter and muse is also its creator, writer, director and costume designer, is always going to risk of lacking a larger creative team who can say no and broaden the vision. It’s a rare thing to say it but this show could have done with a few more chefs.
If you want to come and worship at the idiosyncratic, homoerotic, provocative altar of Gaultier, you will find plenty to appreciate in this unique visual juggernaut. If you want a show that is a deep dive into the man behind the fashion statements, you may find Fashion Freakshow a little threadbare.
The Recs isn’t going to give this show a star rating. It’s impossible. Like much of JPG’s career, this show is divisive. Some will give it a delirious 5 stars and savour every extravagant moment. Others may find it all style over any substance. We can certainly guarantee you a unique night out!