The Monocle at Wilton’s Music Hall, London review: Mesmerising dance show set in secret lesbian club in 1930s Paris

Performers from stage show The Monocle show off their moves (Images: Provided)
Performers from stage show The Monocle show off their moves (Images: Provided)

Jazz and dance aficionados might chastise us for it, but Attitude is proud of our ability to shoehorn pop music into absolutely everything we do, including, evidently, this review of contemporary dance performance The Monocle, set in a secret lesbian club in 1920s France and staged at Wilton’s Music Hall in London last Friday. Prepare yourself to marvel at our daring, as we somehow – somehow! – bring Blackpink and NSYNC into this later on.

‌Inspired by Le Monocle, a real-life queer space existing in interwar period Paris, the production sees a tight-knit team of performers summon the spirit of the City of Light at its most stylish and bohemian. Speaking of style: the sleek suiting on display is delicious, and contrary to received West End wisdom of more-is-more, a scarcity of sequins means a lone shimmering dress stands out all the more.

The show is laced together by the swings and riffs of ornamenting jazz singer Imogen Banks; a less imaginative production might have placed her and her BSL interpreter at the side of the stage as production. Instead, they double up as club patrons, effortlessly adding width and depth to the story. The literal heavy lifting, however, comes courtesy of a mesmerising troupe of dancers: Alyssa Lisle, Coralie Calfond, Jemima Colin, Natassa Argyropoulou, Ruth Howard and Zara Phillips. Focus on the detail and you’ll notice how incomprehensibly intricate these routines are; expand your field of vision, and the fluidity and synchronicity of the movement, choreographed by Mathieu Geffré, is breathtaking.

Imagine six characters speaking to each often at warp speed, but micropausing, and always at exactly the right moment so as not to speak over each other. And imagine that sounding like birdsong, rather than a garbled mess. This is like that. A rich, lively conversation between six people – thats’s 15 interpersonal dynamics, or 28 including the singer and interpreter! – where everyone speaks freely and equally, but where the language is, for the most part, movement.

Indeed, so much is expressed without dialogue that the sound of feet on floorboards or a string of pearls lightly clattering against a hard surface bursts with meaning. Banks verbalises the odd narrative foundation, and song selection fills in some gaps: especially Édith Piaf’s ‘La Vie en rose’, which speaks volumes about the transcendent positivity these merrymakers feel for one another. A live band would really take things to the next level.

Otherwise – quelle horror! – the storytelling isn’t spelled out for you. But that’s the point, and in this age of TV bloat and endless world-building, it’s actually refreshing rather than off-putting. The story, like the chic staging, is minimal anyway, with black-suited, long-fingered interlopers advancing the plot so obviously that even an uncultured reality TV addict could clock it. Whether these faceless figures represent homophobia, misogyny, or the still-present threat to LGBTQ safe spaces posed by greedy landlords, you decide.

At one juncture, the dancers engage in a chorus of guttural ‘vocalising’ to indicate sexual excitement and an oncoming orgy. It somewhat consciously breaks a spell, but prompts such a wave of laughter in the audience, it’s worth it. Besides, it’s later compensated for with a depiction of group sex so gentle, moving and fundamentally erotic that ‘kindness is my kink’ suddenly becomes a very compelling concept.

How did The Monocle put Attitude in mind of those aforementioned pop bands, then? It’s more a question of how it didn’t. The dancers, although totally ‘in sync’ during the group numbers, are thankfully not engaged in the military spectacle of a NSYNC or Blackpink routine. Instead, there are subtle differences in their movements, à la their individual characters, à la an energy spectrum. Each person on stage is fiercely individual, and yet together, they’re more than the sum of their parts. And it’s about more than just gender – although, evidently, gender was as much a fabulously mysterious concept back then as it is today.

What really sold me on the show, however, was how radically the performers’ facial expressions and postures changed and relaxed at curtain call. They suddenly looked like different people. It hit home how doggedly they’d just performed, to the point of exhaustion, with every fibre of their being, for almost two hours. Each was overcome with emotion. It was extremely affecting.

For more information, visit the The Monocle‘s website.

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