“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.
“a very human story that pulls off the almost impossible feat of making you feel nostalgic for Thatcher’s Britain”
It is 1984 in London, and while Thatcher and Scargill are at loggerheads over the miner’s strike elsewhere, the city is setting the scene for its own battles in a time of cultural upheaval. There was a revolutionary spirit, partly fuelled by the property boom, that eventually found itself in the hands of the satirists. While Gordon Gekko’s “Greed is Good” speech echoed from Wall Street, our home grown “Loadsamoney” became a national catchphrase. But among the cacophony, a quieter voice, in the shape of the late writer Stephen Jeffreys, captured the mood with far more humanity and subtlety. “Valued Friends” was the play that launched Jeffreys’ career and won him the Evening Standard and Critics’ Circle Award for most Promising Playwright.
In its first major revival in thirty years, the comedy and pathos still resonate in today’s turbulent economic and political climate. Yet the beauty of Jeffreys’ writing lies in his refusal to allow the social issues to take centre stage. They are merely the backdrop to the razor-sharp depiction of the characters, which makes his writing both era specific and timeless.
In a basement flat in Earls Court, four friends in their mid-thirties are scrabbling to keep their heads above water. They are thrown unexpectedly into a battle of nerves when a young, confident property developer offers them a substantial fee to vacate their home. Spurred on by the revolutions of their time, they quickly realise that they hold all the cards in this real-life game of Monopoly and, over the course of three years, they manipulate the burgeoning property market. But much more is at stake than a few quid, and that is what the audience cares about.
“How much do you care?” asks quirky, stand-up comic Sherry in the opening line. It is the beginning of a hilarious monologue about her journey home on the Underground, one of many delivered by Natalie Casey in a spellbinding performance that is a master class in comic timing. Meanwhile Michael Marcus’ Howard, an academic writing about the corruption of capitalism, is succumbing to the attraction of the pound signs waved in front of him. Marion and Paul make up the close-knit foursome destined to be torn apart. “You used to get some really good conversation in this flat. Burning issues and moral dilemmas and things. Now all everyone talks about is money”. Sam Frenchum, as Paul, brilliantly sheds his comic mantle as the keen music journalist to become the earnest home improvement enthusiast, while Catrin Stewart’s straight-talking, pragmatic Marion manages to pull our heartstrings as she discovers that the more she gains, the more she has to lose – on a purely personal level. Ralph Davis’ meticulously pitched estate agent, Scott, is a brilliant work of satire. Far from being a Mephistophelian figure he merely dangles the carrot. But show stealer is Nicholas Tennant as Stewart, who only appears in the second act as the hilarious, surreally philosophical builder.
Michael Fentiman’s sharp direction brings out the best of the actors on Michael Taylor’s simple yet ingenious set, that transforms in time-lapse motion from a scruffy basement flat to a swish, desirable property. This is a very human story that pulls off the almost impossible feat of making you feel nostalgic for Thatcher’s Britain. Richard Hammarton’s eighties soundtrack highlights the best of the decade, just as these characters shed a warm light on the heart of the matter. It’s a skilfully written and performed piece of modern satire: you shouldn’t like these people but, in answer to the opening question of the play, you care an awful lot.