Frivolous French Fluff: Jean Paul Gaultier: Fashion Freak Show At Southbank Centre

Jean Paul Gaultier Fashion Freak Show, Southbank Centre ★★★☆☆

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Frivolous French Fluff: Jean Paul Gaultier: Fashion Freak Show At Southbank Centre Jean Paul Gaultier Fashion Freak Show, Southbank Centre 3
Photo: Luke Austin

Watching a woman in a pink satin corset being mock-rimmed on a trolley, accompanied by an unintelligible Gallic rendition of Light My Fire, Jean Paul Gaultier’s catwalk cabaret initially promises to be more Eurotrash than high fashion. In truth, it’s a two-hour romp through Gaultier’s life that showcases his iconic, avant garde creations with humour, creativity and free-spirited fun.

Photo: Luke Austin

For fashion devotees, it’s an orgasmic visual feast of punk rock panniers, rococo bees, tinsel-tastic bears, piped body suits, architectural corsetry, cone bras for days, and the designer’s trademark nautical chic. Only fashion’s ‘enfant terrible’ could produce a six-breasted, eight-legged alien model wrapped up in a bow.

Photo: Luke Austin

Hedonistic haute couture aside, does Freak Show work as a theatrical spectacle? Yes and no. Once the clever visual gimmickry wears off, some of the ensemble numbers seem unfocused and overlong.  The vogueing and posturing in a thrilling dance-off is a real highlight and demonstrates the undoubted talent of the cast, but elsewhere they aren’t given much to do.

Photo: Luke Austin

The self-deprecating comedy segments played out on towering video screens prevent a descent into total self-indulgence, but occasionally the satirical characters — including a Frenchified Anna Wintour — take things to a demented and grating extreme. There is a poignant interlude depicting Gaultier’s lover and partner succumbing to AIDS, but the narrative is clouded by the frivolous characterisation up to this point.

Photo: Luke Austin

Gaultier himself appears on screen at the close of the show to express his joy that the long-held dream of creating this production has become reality, and declare that there is beauty in every skin colour and body type.  His sentiments are endearing and sincere, but while the cast is racially diverse, they are uniformly slender and conventionally beautiful, sacrificial lambs to the French obsession with pert, bare breasts on display at every opportunity. A willowy white woman in a banana skirt portraying Josephine Baker is also a questionable decision.

Photo: Luke Austin

Ultimately, Freak Show is a joyous mouthful of whimsical candy floss — sweet and satisfying, but only momentarily. Go for the couture, not the empty calories.

Jean Paul Gaultier: Fashion Freak Show, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre, Belvedere Road, SE1 8XX. Tickets £30-120, until 2 August 2019.

Last Updated 25 July 2019