A touch of the macabre seems to run through the indomitable Marie Tussaud (née Grosholtz), the (probably illegitimate) daughter of a cook and a father whose family had been working as public executioners for three centuries. The Tussaud brand, which remained a family business until 1967, is known worldwide and crowds of tourists queue up outside the premises in Baker Street every day (a brisk walk up Marylebone Road from the New Diorama Theatre) but the woman who started it all is shrouded in myth, which she encouraged when dictating her memoirs in 1837. The 250th anniversary of Tussaud’s birth next takes place next week on December 1st (depending on which birth certificate you believe), and Gillian Lynne’s nimble production of Judith Paris’s gripping and beautifully written script with her tour de force performance leaves the audience feeling as if they have only narrowly escaped the French Revolution themselves.
While rags to riches stories are celebrated these days, Tussaud was keen to make her background more respectable for the British (she settled in Britain when stranded as an enemy alien during the Napoleonic wars, not as a refugee from the Revolution as is often believed) who don’t approve of upstarts crawling up from the gutter, while also peppering her narrative with off-the-record anecdotes. Born in Berne in 1760 (or possibly Strasbourg in 1761), she eschewed traditionally feminine domestic arts for wax modelling, becoming the protégée of her ‘uncle’ Dr Phillipe Curtius (who seems to have been the most important figure in her life), a wax modeller with a sideline in wax pornography, who entertained many of the most eminent thinkers of the day. She witnessed the last glory days of Versailles as an art tutor to Louis XVI’s sister Madame Elisabeth, survived the French Revolution, didn’t come to marriage and motherhood until she was in her thirties and lived until she was ninety, working her fingers to the bone, unable to “remember a day when I have not worked all day, everyday.”
Paris’s detailed and expressive performance is a masterclass in vocal technique (she uses a gentle French accent with a touch of German – German was Tussaud’s first language) and movement, in which Tussaud’s aging process from childhood to old age and the transitions between episodes are seamlessly done. She is both an artist who puts her powers of observation to use in recreating the small details that bring a model to life and a canny businesswoman. The audience recoils with her in horror when first introduced to Curtius’s circus of horrors featuring the latest and most bankable criminals; the public appetite for gore then became a survival method by making death masks of the fallen and she made her name in London by being the first waxwork artist to create a death mask of anarchist Colonel Despard.
The Enlightenment replaced by dehumanising bloodshed is wonderfully characterised by Steve Lowe’s use of half light and candlelight. We see the teenage Marie hover outside the candlelit dining room hosting Rousseau, Voltaire and Benjamin Franklin; she basks in the glow of Versailles and stumbles in the darkness of the Revolution with an outline of the guillotine projected on the ground. The stage is free from waxworks, using blank heads on to which the audience is free to project their imagination and Peter McCarthy’s music evokes nostalgia and a touch of otherworldliness.
In her interview with Exeunt, Paris said that she wasn’t interested in portraying Tussaud’s story with ‘cleverness’, but she shares Tussaud’s gift of giving audiences what they want in feeding an insatiable hunger for storytelling (waxworks were a kind of theatre in providing three-dimensional likenesses of the famous and powerful). Tussaud recalls that British audiences in particular wanted to feel as if they were being educated as well as entertained, and this show likewise triumphs in doing both.