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Moulin Rouge: Yes We Can-Can! review – there’s zero glamour in this high-kicking tale

This documentary follows the feathered, bejewelled British women who staff the Parisian institution. Be warned: the reality is all a bit cheap and shoddy

There are certain shows that make you think of the joy that must have lit up the producer’s face when news reached them of its premise. With Moulin Rouge: Yes We Can-Can!, I imagine an eager young thing bursting into the shiny office around which their boss is prowling discontentedly while chomping on a cigar, and crying breathlessly: “The Moulin Rouge … the dance troupe … they’re all Brits! And it’s run by a woman … called Janet! She’s from Yorkshire!” The prowling stops. The head turns. A smile spreads across the formerly furious face and the cigar is ground out in an ashtray made from a replica of Michael Grade’s skull. “It’s The Yorkshire Vet in Paris!” “It’s Our Yorkshire Farm in high heels!” “It’s All Creatures Great and Small with” – the voice drops to a whisper – “boobs”.

How the faces of the production team must have fallen when they met Janet. For she is no motherly Jane McDonald type who suffuses viewers with an ineffable sense of happiness. Janet is a shark. Janet is nails. Whatever humanity she has in real life fails to make it across the screen. She is glorious.

Janet is the still, watchful eye of a bejewelled and feathered storm. Around her flock and chatter the girls (some are only in their late teens) and women of the famed Moulin Rouge cabaret. Most of them are classically trained dancers, many of whom grew too tall to be ballet dancers. But the Moulin and Janet want them tall, and ideally with disproportionately long legs, so that when they high-kick, their toes go higher than their head. Otherwise, they will look like a potato in a skirt.

The programme’s main focus among the dancers is 32-year-old Tooney, who is contemplating retirement from the job she has held and loved at the club for the past decade and more. She wants to go home to Warwickshire, find “someone I can build a life with” and start a new career as an estate agent. “If they don’t find their soulmate in Paris,” says Janet, grimly – Janet says most things grimly – “they go home.”

The Moulin Rouge was closed for 18 months during the pandemic and Janet’s troupe is still in need of new dancers. Off she heads to the UK (where we have the best dance schools, apparently – hurrah, for once, for us!) to audition hopefuls in her native Leeds. “It’s not Strictly,” she says. “It’s not X-Factor. It’s a professional job, with a real company, in Paris.” That’s us told. “I know what I need,” she adds. “I always know what I need.”

Twenty-two-year-old hopeful Erin was sent to ballet lessons at the age of three by her parents, Angela and Brian, because she was so uncoordinated (“You could put her in a padded room and she’d come out with a bump on her head”) and they hoped it would help.

It did. She makes it through the audition and is off to Paris. “Just know, we’re all proud of you. Seriously,” says Brian, on the verge of tears. “Eat well,” says Angela. “Broccoli.” The picture that springs to mind, of all the girls in a locked room thrown scraps three times a day by Janet, is doubtless wrong, but I find it hard to shake.

It is an odd show, is what I’m saying. It was obviously assumed that the vivacity of the girls and glamour of the setting would be enough, even after it became clear that they were not going to get the warm heart around which it could all cohere. But it is not (not least because the Moulin Rouge does not appear to be at all glamorous – it looks cheap and bare and the makers capture none of what we must presume is still a fantastic live atmosphere). It sets out to be a series of six fun and frothy half hours, but it can’t-can’t quite make it.

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