In Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s 2001 film, Audrey Tautou played the title character with cautious timidity – one of the first offbeat, untraditional heroines of the century. Yann Tiersen composed the film’s score, a swirling, romantic soundtrack led by piano loops and a vibrating accordion. The film captures a very pointed feeling of hazy specificity, of loneliness without a trace of self-pity. To thrust it onto the stage seemed like a misguided idea.
But in practice, Amélie the musical is an unquestionable delight. At once exuberant and precise, the production breathes with kind-hearted optimism. French-Canadian actress Audrey Brisson leads stunningly as the story’s heroine, as if the role had been written specifically for her. The rest of the cast attempts a French accent – the original intrigue is not just set in Paris, but lived by French people exclusively – which does at time veer more into Welsh sounds than raspy romanticisms from beyond the Channel.
The accents matter little though, as one of the greatest strengths of the production is the music. Every performer plays an instrument – some keep them at all times, others pick up a violin and then swap it for a puppet. Polymaths abound, including Caolan McCarthy who juggles the roles of Hippolito and Elton John (yes, that one) while leading several musical numbers with an effortless mastery of the piano.
The Mysterious Man is a crucial character of the original story, here smartly played by Oliver Grant. He also takes on the role of fruit and veg grocer Lucien – as well as puppeteering a little girl and a gnome, and playing the violin without ever losing a fully committed precision that’s a dream to watch.
Although the story belongs to Amélie, there’s no monopoly in terms of performance. The idea of a snow-globe society, of a cyclical reality, infuses the show with an inviting sense of flowing community: in the roundabout nature of the Two Mills café, of the luminous oval clock that hides Amélie’s bedroom, of a goldfish going round in circles in a fish bowl, or of Amélie’s finger tracing the rim of a wine glass.
The visual details of such an intricate and elaborate microcosm have the magic secrecy of something like Hermione Granger’s beaded handbag, that carries whole worlds in the tiny pockets of its fabric. Pianos turn into tobacco stands, a lampshade transports a little woman into her secret haven, and, well, giant figs and gnomes are things that might not not make an appearance.
It’s in these later instances that the film’s surrealism is harnessed, by letting mundane objects step into the realm of the living. It’s a fine line to walk, before theatrical surrealism masks subtleties in the name of humour, but the thoughtful direction mostly keeps this in check.
Comedy flows through the show, with actors deploying the sharp physicality of clowns and choreography being controlled with the twitch of an eyebrow, the flutter of a fingertip.
But the overwhelming feeling is one of romance. Not so much nostalgia as ever-present melancholy, taking hold of the city and giving it visceral feeling – of one small person wanting to feel and make a change in the world around her.
It becomes a love story. An all-in meeting of two people who share kisses so tenderly that the entire room stops breathing. There’s a line the ensemble sings, speaking of “a surge of love/an urge to help mankind” as the strings and acoustic guitar (so crowdpleasing you could imagine Mumford and Sons happily recording their own version of the book) sing with heart-soaring positivity.
When the symbiosis of ambition, selflessness, romance and painstakingly well-executed design reaches its apex, the immediate response of a viewer in the row behind us seems like the only possible reaction. The lights go down after the final melody, and she gasps in thanks.
|What||Amélie The Musical, The Other Palace review|
|Where||The Other Palace Theatre, 12 Palace Street, London, SW1E 5JA | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Victoria (underground)|
29 Nov 19 – 02 Feb 20, 7:30 PM – 10:00 PM
|Price||£19.50 – £65|
|Website||Click here for tickets and more information|