Book: Craig Lucas
Music: Daniel Messé
Lyrics: Nathan Tysen and Daniel Messé
Director: Michael Fentiman
The statue of Eros guards over the entrance to London’s Criterion Theatre and gives a fitting clue to the air of the show that has now taken up residence inside. Based on Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s hit 2001 film Amélie, this musical is set in a romanticised version of modern Paris which bears only a passing resemblance to the reality lying little more than a couple of hours away on Eurostar.
French-themed musicals do not have a bad track record and this one was seen briefly in London before the pandemic. The show is now making its West End debut at a theatre in which alternate rows of seating have been removed, such a blessing for those of us who are slightly long of leg. Drinks can also be delivered to seats, perhaps giving us a preview of luxury theatregoing in the future.
There are no Eiffel Towers to be seen in Madeleine Girling’s split-level set design which eschews the obvious, but, when lit dimly, looks more like a crypt at Notre Dame than a vibrant cityscape and seems somewhat at odds with the feel good mood of the show.
Amélie Poulain (Audrey Brisson) is a shy young lady from a dysfunctional family. Her father has more time for a garden gnome than for her. After being whisked quickly through her backstory, we find Amélie in 1997, a waitress in a Parisian restaurant. She is a naive fantasist who embarks on a plan to perform extraordinary acts of kindness to others. Various stories intertwine, leading to multiple redemptions and Amélie herself moves along a path towards romance with Nino (Chris Jared).
Leading the company, Brisson and Jared are excellent, but this is an ensemble piece for 16 multi-tasking actors/singers/musicians. Under Michael Fentiman’s direction, they harmonise in every sense and generate a compelling sense of community. Fentiman’s witty and inventive production flows, seemingly effortlessly and thrives on group energy.
The original film was most notable for its quirky humour, which is captured well in Craig Lucas’ book and the song lyrics by Nathan Tysen and composer Daniel Messé. There is a folksy feel to Messé’s lovely music, but there is also much variety, ranging from lilting love ballads to comic parodies. A surprise appearance by Elton John (Caolan McCarthy) brings the first half to a rousing climax.
Thick French accents assumed by the entire company seem unnecessary and they impair the clarity of the storytelling. However, it becomes impossible to dwell long on minor flaws while being swept away by the endearing performances and ravishing melodies to be seen and heard here. This is one enchanted evening that makes an emphatic statement that the West End is back in business.
Runs until 25 September 2021