Amy Fitzgibbon, Brassaï, Edinburgh Fringe, Ellie Leyshon, Great Egg Theatre Company, Hannah Khan, Laura McQuiggan, Le Monocle (nightclub), Lesbianism, Liza Greenhalgh, Paris, Rebecca James, Samuel Mason, Surgeon's Hall, Theatre Review, Tiff Milner, Violette Morris
2019 finds the Space @ Surgeons Hall unbending its limbs in every direction. The box office is now squashed into the entranceway, where its queue is spilling out into the street. The courtyard bar has sent up a see-through plastic roof – why have they never done this before? The venue has also taken over a previously unused building to provide two new theatres – why had they never done this as well? With growth, however, comes growing pains. A show that I had tried to attend on Saturday was cancelled after one of the new theatres had lost its electricity. Today, on the other hand, the same theatre is so freakishly hot that it appears to be a test-site for nuclear fusion.
Tiff Milner’s “Le Monocle” tells the true story of the eponymous Parisian nightclub. Le Monocle had been kicking around in the 1920s and 30s, when it had admitted only lesbians, or at least lesbians who had dressed the part. Monocles and braces were crucial to the costume and the code. Indeed the entire bar had looked out on the world from behind the huge monocle shape of its circular doorway. The photographer Brassaï had visited at some point and he had taken a selection of breathtakingly stylish shots.
This play certainly matches the visual panache of Brassaï’s photos. It is always cute and often cheerful, but the trouble is that photographs rarely achieve much depth as a story. “Le Monocle” recruits a cast of enjoyably interesting characters and this, along with its absence of danger, gives it the homely tenor of an old British sitcom. It is nearer to ‘Allo ‘Allo than to Jean Genet’s underworld.
Le Monocle is a bar where everybody is in committed relationships or else they are having boring relationship troubles. It is apparently not a place for hook-ups or explosive sexual liberation. They even hold a wedding, illegally of course, but the idea that such characters would have ever wanted to be married seems as anachronistic as a Starbucks cup in a medieval banquet. This Le Monocle is at heart a community café or a kind of fond lesbian village pub, which expresses a nostalgia for traditional communities that lesbians probably did not feel at the time.
When the play decides to get serious, the resultant melodrama is not piercing enough to rock it out of its easy gentleness. The melodrama never really opens up the story. It should not be difficult to account for how Violette Morris (Amy Fitzgibbon) had evolved from being a titanic, javelin-hurling superwoman to a worshipper of Nazi power. This story nonetheless makes an unnecessary muddle by going along with her empowerment to begin with. A more thoughtful focus on Morris might have created some exciting theatre, though the end of the original nightclub’s story was perhaps too distressing and bitter for this production to realistically countenance. The Nazis came and a lot of other people went. If “Le Monocle” had committed to showing the full horror of this, then it would have foregone the escapist beauty of Brassaï’s photographs.