Toulouse-Lautrec: The Musical

Call me strange, but watching this show twice (in English and in Japanese) has been my most fascinating theatre experience in a long time. This is a musical about a Frenchman, written in Japanese and on alternate days translated into English. The many layers of cultural identity boggle the mind, and are unfortunately far more interesting than the content of the show itself.Jun Sawaki is quite well known in Japan for playing the Phantom, the Beast, Che Guevara, in native productions of major Western musicals. His self-penned one-man show charting the life of artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec stays within the sound-world of these 80s/90s mega-musicals. With a cast of one (plus an on-stage pianist whose keyboard seems to be set to honky-tonk), Sawaki has to command attention for an hour, invoking colourful locales and creating various characters all by himself. This he does with remarkable showmanship and high energy, which may seem over-the-top to Western eyes and ears. Once you buy into Sawaki’s high-octane performance, complete with spins indicating a change of character, the effect is quite entertaining.On Engligh-language days, Toulouse-Lautrec is performed by Sawaki’s Scottish grasshopper, Alex Nasmyth. Presenting a more reserved and nuanced performance, Nasmyth does well despite the terrible translation which frequently places stress on the wrong syllables. Having seen Nasmyth first, I was ready to criticise his decidedly odd gesturing. On seeing Sawaki’s own performance, it became obvious that the Brit had been instructed to copy his master’s movement, which he was evidently uncomfortable doing. Sawaki’s highly stylised bluster did not work for the more reserved and naturalistic Nasmyth – a totally different approach was required.The show itself is little more than a blow-by-blow account of the artist’s life, narrated by himself. The songs are not memorable, and have the predictable qualities of J-Pop, or the worst of Boublil and Schönberg. In fact, the parting shot of the musical has the artist singing his own name, ‘Lautrec, Lautrec, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec,’ uncomfortably transliterated into Japanese, and set to a tune from Les Misérables (‘Who am I? Who am I? 2-4-6-0-1!’). Two love songs consisted of nothing more than repeating his beloveds’ names, neither of which work particularly well in Japanese: ‘Madeleine’ and ‘Suzanne’. I did however enjoy ‘The Green Fairy Absinthe’, despite a lack of originality, and Nasmyth’s trance-like performance of this song was quite compelling.With terrible, sometimes painful lighting and with minimal set, this show can’t offer the spectacle that the music requires to carry it through. The spectacle comes instead from jumbled cultural threads in the production – Nasmyth’s Japanese-inflected acting, Sawaki’s Anglo-American-inflected music. Performances are in English on Sun/Tue/Thu, and in Japanese with subtitles on Mon/Wed/Fri/Sat. Choose well, or see both. Or neither.

Reviews by James Robert Ball

Leicester Square Theatre

De Profundis


Another Way




The Walls


The Blurb

Discover the brief but astonishing life of the man whose decadent paintings of the Moulin Rouge made him one of the most renowned artists of the nineteenth century. Performed in English (Sun/Tue/Thu) and Japanese with subtitles (Mon/Wed/Fri/Sat).