Ben Elton’s Close-Up: The Twiggy Musical is a fantastically misjudged production at the Menier Chocolate Factory
“When the truth is found to be lies
And all the joy within you dies”
One thing that never seems to strike those bristle at the suggestion that they might not be the best suited to tell a particular story is that there could possibly be some truth to it, that just because they can write about something doesn’t automatically mean that they are best suited to doing so, that a different perspective could be so much more valuable and insightful to our culture. Close-Up: The Twiggy Musical arrives at the Menier Chocolate Factory as part of a programme of three back-to-back musicals all with white, male directors with an average age of 69 and written by white men with an average age of 78 – Elton is actually the youngest writer in there at 64 – so make of that what you will.
Even without this context, there’s little to defend Close-Up… from being a fantastically misjudged project. The story of Lesley Hornby, a schoolgirl from a working class background in Neasden who rapidly rose to global fame as a model and face of the 1960s and beyond, is one rich with potential, not least avenues such as class and feminism evolving over the decades. But Elton spurns it all to go for a jukebox musical with a paper-thin, surface-level characterisation of her journey (the involvement of Twiggy herself may not have helped) and without the eye of an external director to perhaps suggest alternative directions here and there, the production goes full down the rabbit-hole.
The major problem is a shonky narrative device which seems determined to retrospectively pseudo-analyse British societal attitudes through Elton’s perspective. We’re constantly and guffawingly reminded we’re in pre-Me Too times and Elton seems to think that pointing out that things were different back then counts as insight. As he lectures us about body shaming, toxic masculinity and class warfare, he simultaneously makes light of all sorts of issues that he apparently doesn’t think are as serious. Twiggy’s mother’s mental health issues – the opportunity for a gag; alcoholic husbands – deeply unseriously portrayed. We’re never ever too far from the glibbest of humour and it is so misplaced.
Ultimately, there’s a fundamental lack of interest in Twiggy’s actual biography, in the details of her experience as a model, as a women, as this cultural totem that the show seems determined to insist that she is. As others have pointed out, the videos that occasionally play out do far more to show us even just a modicum of all this. What we’re left with is a story that Ben Elton wanted to tell, about how Ben Elton feels about the state of the world today and what things were like when he was a kid. The committed work of the cast, led by Elena Skye, doesn’t stand a chance.