“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.
“There were gasps of admiration from the audience at the moment one aspect of the set was revealed”
From book to film, book to stage or stage to film, literary works often make successful transitions to new media, but a theatrical interpretation of a film is one of the most difficult to pull off. How to cram all of the colour and spectacle of a much-loved feature on to a few square metres of bare boards? And how to make it work as a musical?
Amélie was an award-winning, quirky and nostalgic French romantic comedy released in 2001. Anyone who has seen it will have strong memories of its unique look and of the charismatic performance of Audrey Tautou as the shy waitress Amélie Poulain.
The Watermill Theatre is staging its own winning production of a musical adaptation of the film, written by Craig Lucas with lyrics by Nathan Tysen and Daniel Messé, who also wrote the music. Originally premiered in the US in 2017, this new version has been re-worked for a British audience. According to Director Mike Fentiman, ‘Amélie is a musical that seeks connections… [with a] strange, foreign, melancholic, philosophical, gentle, elusive world’.
Watching this celebration of Parisian life after the disastrous fire at Notre Dame was a particularly poignant experience. Almost the entire story of the film is told on stage in a series of twenty five musical episodes that amongst others reference Sondheim, Lloyd Webber and gospel music. Amélie is brought up in the seventies by remote parents that protect her from the real world and from real feelings. She works as a waitress in a Paris café populated by lonely eccentrics who she determines to try to help, until she finally finds love herself.
The writing is witty and satisfyingly avoids the obvious. The first number contains a lovely theme that recurs throughout the show, performed by the entire cast playing, amongst others piano, flute, percussion strings and an accordion. This is a multi-talented group of performers, led by the charismatic and ‘mignon’ French-Canadian Audrey Brisson, with Chris Jared as Nino Quincampoix, the photo-booth obsessive, with whom she quickly becomes fascinated. His singing voice is a delightfully mellow contrast to her brighter sound.
Since the story is set in Paris in the 1990s, there is even a rollicking pastiche by a brilliantly swaggering Caolan McCarthy of Elton John’s ‘Candle in the Wind’, which was performed in 1997 at the funeral of Princess Diana. When much of the rest of the show is so animated, Johnson Willis brought a pleasingly quiet poignancy to his portrayal of Dufayel, the ‘glass man’. There were other delightful moments from the entire cast, not least Samuel Morgan-Grahame as Joseph and Fluffy, who managed to make a simple telephone call hilarious.
The design, by prize-winning Madeleine Girling, is simply a marvel. The stage at the Watermill is tiny, and enormous creativity has gone into providing spaces in which to represent the film’s many scenes. There were gasps of admiration from the audience at the moment one aspect of the set was revealed, with some wonderful detailing that beautifully captured the spirit of the film.
Somehow two pianos (with some unexpected surprises within), a dozen performers acting and singing whilst playing violins, cellos, double bass, flute and accordion and a photo-booth on wheels all manage to simultaneously bring the small space to delightful life thanks to the immaculate direction of Michael Fentiman. Movement direction by Tom Jackson Greaves deserves a special mention.
This is a fast-moving, feel-good and heartily recommended show.
Reviewed by David Woodward
Photography by Pamela Raith
Watermill Theatre until 18th May then UK Tour commences