IN BRIEF Charming, successful stage musical reinvention of unique movie lovingly reboots audiences’ Joie de Vivre
Celebrating a hopeful yet sensitive female hero, who makes a positive difference to the world she inhabits, AMḖLIE has arrived right on time…. As you may know, AMḖLIE was first a quirky, beloved and wildly successful French film from 2001. Turning a French movie into a stage musical is trickier than defusing a bomb whilst wearing oven gloves, so all credit must go to the creative team that have brought this reworked UK tour of AMḖLIE so brilliantly to the stage.
The story: Isolated as a child by overprotective parents, Amélie creates her own fantasy world where facts are her colour and thoughts her friends. Moving to Paris in 1997, she works as a waitress, observing others and performing small acts of kindness which deliver emotional rewards. Amélie is benevolent but distanced. It is only when she sees a man, Nino, collecting discarded photo booth snaps that she feels the first pangs of love. Both Amélie and Nino have a deep interest in others whilst maintaining a distance – Nino through his second hand photos, Amélie through her telescope and anonymous acts of kindness. But Amélie comes to realise that while helping others is easy, the hardest thing is to help herself.
The key to this show is that it never loses sight of its humanity. This production never misses its footing, even in the pretty outrageous first act closer, Elton John’s (Caolan McCarthy) – funeral tribute “Goodbye Amélie” as our heroine watches Princess Diana’s funeral and imagines it her own. Along the way, tiny cast interactions remind us that a simple “Thank You”, when an ensemble member helps Améllie on to one of the higher platforms, has resonance in a quiet, non- showy or self-important way, epitomising the show’s approach.
Both leads are perfectly cast, each with an expressive vocal elegance which is highly pleasurable. Audrey Brisson as Amélie works hard; she is rarely off-stage but is full of energy, furnishing her character with tiny bits of business, and a precision that brings this enigmatic character to life, with a powerful voice and clarity. Danny Mac as Nino is strong-voiced, passionate yet tender, his role increasing as the show develops; his big number “Thin Air” is sung with heart and style. I would have liked more from his character- but this is Amélie’s show.
With the iconic Paris Metro sign surmounting the double height Art Nouveau/Deco -inspired set, Madeleine Girling provides an interestingly detailed design, with Amélie’s “nest” far above the Paris bustle, accessed by flying.
The supporting company of performer/musicians work hard and effectively to create a busy stage environment, with much movement direction and use of props, detailed and always interesting. Singing, too, was of a very high standard, with the spotted harmony work a delight to the ear.
Just as this was a film unlike any other, so too the musical has cannily embraced this to make the stage show unique in its approach and style – to make it less of a plot and more of a mosaic of tiny scenes and actions which weave together to make an intriguing storyline flow.
The music and lyrics are similarly complex and delightful. There is an earthiness in the arrangements (brass-light but strongly percussive) that grounds the numbers and lends them believability. A recorded track brings an extra texture to the music which sweeps and washes around the action in a genuinely engaging manner.
Musically, what marks out this show as different is that it is without any major anthems or show-stoppers, creating a kind of a musical modesty suited to the story and the characters, and while that it is appropriate, the downside is that it leaves audiences lacking any takeaway songs. Ditto there was little of what one could call choreography, no dance routines as such, much more in the realm of movement direction, again complex and effective, always interesting to look at but not often what one could call dance. Lighting is also atmospheric and suitably cinematic at times. Sound balance is generally excellent, although on occasion I struggled to hear Amélie’s words over the ensemble, which was a pity as they were worth hearing.
As a modern day fairytale, this could so easily have gone wrong, fallen flat or become infected with Disneyfication, but the humanity, élan, crazy humour and occasional morbidity lend it that quintessential Frenchness which is so often attempted but so rarely achieved.
Puppetry is also well used, spotted effectively with the puppet young Amélie being particularly engaging and skilfully brought to life. On the odd occasion when the pace threatens to lag, along comes a bit of craziness – a singing goldfish, a globe-trotting gnome, animated figs(!) to lift the show and throw us off-balance in the most delightful way.
There is so much to enjoy in this complex, bustling show that is full of life and joie de vivre, pulled together expertly by director Michael Fentiman who creates a veritable curiosity shop of a show that endlessly fascinates, thanks to a hard working cast of sixteen.
The long-awaited finale when our two lovers come face to face is teased to its absolute limit as they eventually kiss, very slowly and delicately – a gamble with an audience, doing so little for such a long moment, but here the tension was such and the concentration so intense in the theatre, that the consummation was enhanced by the dreamlike slowness of the encounter. The audience were totally rapt.
Leaving on a forward-looking ending, AMḖLIE takes audiences out of the theatre knowing that they have spent two and a half hours in a nicer and more hopeful world. I loved it – and, if you have a pulse, so will you.
AMḖLIE tours the UK until October. For tour information and tickets, use the link here