“What wins in the end is the magic and the music, the players and the playing, and the escapism and the optimism”
The huge success of the film, “Amélie” in 2001 made an international star of its young, gamine lead; Audrey Tatou who played the waitress in a Montmartre café. Soon, the café itself enjoyed similar popularity, fast becoming a tourist spot on the Parisian landscape. On a smaller scale the same could be said of “Amélie the Musical” and its impact on Audrey Brisson; except that Brisson has already carved out a unique and quirky name for herself on the world stage. From a distance, the two Audreys might bear a resemblance, but up close there is no denying Brisson’s own identity and striking portrayal of Amélie Poulin, the eccentric waitress around whom this whimsical tales revolves.
Audrey Brisson both leads and is led by a truly impressive line-up of actor-musicians. It doesn’t matter if you are familiar with the film. You can instantly detach yourself from any preconceptions as you become immersed in Michael Fentiman’s production that is a perfect mix of reality and imagination. The film’s underlying but overriding narrative is replaced by an ensemble cast who share and celebrate the oddities and enigmas of life. The first musical to reopen in the West End, it is a breath of fresh air that helps us forget the past fourteen months. Like the title character we are urged to look beyond the drab reality into a world of possibilities.
Unintentionally in the spirit of the times, Amélie is deprived of human interaction, stuck in a bubble of loneliness. Whether she created it herself, or whether it was a result of her overprotective, erratic and neurotic parents, she uses the spy glass of her imagination to look around and discover that the world is made up of the same bubbles. Inspired (during a beautifully surreal moment when Caolan McCarthy belts out an elegiac anthem à la Elton John) by the death of Princess Diana, it becomes Amélie’s mission to carry out small deeds that bring happiness and romance to those lost souls. Of course, along the way she falls in love herself, with the photo-booth obsessed Nino (Chris Jared). Her own case is the hardest one to crack.
Daniel Messé’s score evokes the Paris boulevards but sweeps them up into fuller orchestrations that belong in the West End rather than the side streets. It starts with a lone accordion but builds into a sumptuous collection of strings and keys. The atmosphere is more memorable than the melodies, but the magic is sometimes broken by an intellectual grasp of the craft of these musicians as they dance with and swap instruments in perfect time to Tom Jackson Greaves’ clockwork movement.
Another star of the show is Madeleine Girling’s design; with pianos that come together and separate in a seamless waltz – morphing into street markets and sex shops; and lampshades that allow Brisson to show off her aerial background. The eccentric cleverness of the show sometimes threatens to distract the audience; but that is fleeting. What wins in the end is the magic and the music, the players and the playing, and the escapism and the optimism. Which we all need right now – and which is out there for us all to partake in. And “Amélie the Musical” is definitely the place to find it.
“Post lockdown, this show still manages to feel like a party, despite some of our freedoms taken away from us”
A year ago, we were collectively gearing up for what we hoped would be the “Roaring Twenties”; a replica of that momentous decade in history, particularly American history, that was chronicled so beautifully by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Little did we know what a colossal car crash we were heading for just around the corner. The characters portrayed in Fitzgerald’s novel tend to run away from their difficulties. “They were careless people… they smashed up things, and let other people clean up the mess they had made”. Jay Gatsby himself, however, was exempt from this, and his indomitable spirit lives on in “The Great Gatsby”, the immersive theatre show (London’s longest running) staged like a party at Gatsby’s mansion.
“So we beat on, boats against the current…” Those words resonate more powerfully than ever. The flow of events seems to change daily; what may be possible today might not be tomorrow, so the zeitgeist of the American dream follows us, reminding us to seize the day while we can. Post lockdown, this show still manages to feel like a party, despite some of our freedoms taken away from us. But hey, prohibition never stopped people having a good time. We’re not quite there ourselves, but in a neat echo Nick Carraway (James Lawrence) hushes the audience during the second curtain-call, as the clock strikes ten, to announce that “normally we’d be getting out of costume now and join you in the bar. But that’s illegal!”
But let’s start from the top. The first thing you notice is the detail. The venue, once you’ve passed through the temperature checks and security, sweeps you back into the Jazz Age. We are welcomed like old friends; like regulars in a Speakeasy, complicit in some sort of illicit pleasure. It is difficult not to reflect occasionally, however, what a logistical precipice the producers, creatives and cast had to scale to get the show back up and running; but these thoughts are soon dislodged by the sheer energy of the performance. Gatsby’s glamour is delivered with a punch that leaves you reeling to the bar for another cocktail at interval.
There is a common misconception about “The Great Gatsby”, so much so that the word ‘Gatsby’ itself has become synonymous with glitz. Alexander Wright’s direction obviously embraces this but also manages to cast a light onto the personalities that Fitzgerald hints at. As the key scenes are played out before us, we can witness the intimate nuances up close. Not quite as up close as we’d sometimes like. It is still immersive theatre but the interaction, like the audience, is partially veiled. It is also quite hit and miss whether you will be invited into one of the other side rooms. Understandably the promenade aspect of the show has been significantly cut back – one cannot wander around freely as before. The upside is that you don’t miss out on any of the main action.
Nick Carraway, the novels’ narrator, shares this burden with the rest of the ensemble. In fact, we see the story unfold through each character’s eyes, often overlapping at times letting us choose who to follow. And it’s a hard choice as each cast member seduces you with a riveting performance. James Lawrence beautifully takes us on his journey from mild amusement and non-judgemental confusion through to his eventual revulsion. Ivy Corbin is gorgeously watchable as she heaps humour onto the self-centred cynicism of Jordan Baker. Daisy Buchanan is given short shrift by Fitzgerald, but Lucinda Turner dresses her innate hollowness with layers of mystery and vulnerability that give her the allure for you to believe in Gatsby’s dream, while Dean Graham’s unshakeable Tom Buchanan does his best to kill that dream. Meanwhile, on the wrong side of the tracks, other dreams die. Tom’s mistress, Myrtle Wilson, is given a brilliant mix of strength and tragic energy by MJ Lee, while her long-suffering husband, George, is brought out of the shadows and given vibrancy and musicality by Lucas Jones.
The revelation is Craig Hamilton’s Gatsby. The tragic hero who pays the price for living too long with a single dream. Hamilton hits the nail on the head, playing him not as the dreamy matinee idol, but as an awkward outsider, socially clumsy, almost on the spectrum, but hugely likeable and charismatic.
What the entire cast do share is their ability to bring out the comedy too. And with Holly Beasley Garrigan’s choreography and Phil Grainger’s sound design and choice of music that give an electric modernity, the evening is a sumptuous tribute to Fitzgerald. In the ‘Roaring Twenties’ the people pursuing the American Dream within his novel were desperate to have fun. Similarly, in our current times, we are just as hungry for it. Gatsby’s mansion in Mayfair is just the place to find it.