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‘A story predicated on equality, mutual support & finding your own path’: ROMANTICS ANONYMOUS – Bristol Old Vic (Online review)

If you want to know what is possible for theatre under Covid-19 restrictions than look to the musicals. Drama is slowly returning with venues like the Bridge and the National Theatre, so far, leaning heavily towards the monologue to simplify the number of people on stage, but it is the musicals where the real creativity is happening. Often unfairly seen as a static medium, since indoor and outdoor performances resumed, it is the directors, choreographers and cast members of these shows who are really pushing the boundaries of innovative technique.

When Jesus Christ Superstar: The Concert became the first show in London after lockdown restrictions eased, we were astonished, delighted and deeply moved to see an approach that played with the concept of social distancing to create a production that looked, sounded and felt like theatre at its very best. Experimental and evocative choreography by Drew McOnie, alternate casting and Timothy Sheader’s savvy direction that used the safety measures to deepen the loneliness and isolation experienced by his characters, this was an inspiration to the industry and other musicals have quickly followed suit.

New work has been particularly abundant, the cast of Sleepless in Seattle took daily Covid tests to perform their new show without social distancing, Jack Miles premiered his new piece St Anne Comes Home as a concert in the Actors Church in Covent Garden with a live audience, while the Southwark Playhouse overcame restrictions by casting musical theatre couple Hadley Fraser and Rosalie Craig in new show Before / After performed live this past weekend in the Little and streamed online. And there is more to come; next weekend Alex Parker and Katie Lam presents another new musical After You performed by Bradley Jaden and Alexia Khadime as part of the streamed Tonight from the London Coliseum concert series while Andrew Lloyd Webber has given over the Palladium to a revival of Songs for a New World in mid October after an online sing-through during lockdown.

Last week, the Bristol Old Vic added their innovative approach with a ‘regional tour’ of Wise Children’s Romantics Anonymous, performed live each night from the Bristol stage by a cast living in a Covid bubble to avoid social distancing, and beamed to different parts of the country  and internationally each night using regional partnerships with local theatres who sold tickets. So, audiences got to see an ordinary show where actors could sing, dance, touch and even kiss as the story required, once again demonstrating that when it comes to adjusting to the ‘new normal’, musicals are leading the way.

With notable exceptions like the National Theatre at Home series and the Old Vic: In Camera, while many of the big London theatres stayed relatively silent during the period of theatre closures, regional venues worked hard to share archive productions or develop new and interesting content. This ranged from the radio plays and children’s adventure stories of the Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield to musicals from Chichester – the chance to more fully appreciate great work happening beyond the M25 has been a welcome development.

And it is one that regional companys are beginning to capitalise on with theatre fans returning to their favourite or newly discovered venues without the expense of travel or overnight accommodation as streaming platforms provide a new way to see theatre. In late October they will take  viewers to Nottingham Playhouse for a festival of new work, while last week we journeyed to Bristol for Wise Children’s week-long residency and live performances of their 2017 musical Romantics Anonymous.

The Bristol Old Vic made a lot of fans very happy when they screened a “bootleg capture” of The Grinning Man over the summer – one of the finest new musicals of recent years – and the chance to support this new endeavour was hugely welcome. Unlike the Old Vic’s In Camera productions, Director Emma Rice didn’t make a virtue of the camerawork to create a hybrid stage and screen performance with complicated camera angles or shot selection to enhance the drama, rather, like an NT Live recording, this show focused on the touching story, its unique selling point being the complete avoidance of social distancing.

Set in a pseudo 1950s / contemporary world of chocolate makers, this light romance already has a cult following and for first time viewers it is easy to see why, the story and characters slowly making their way into your heart, shrugging-off the stresses of the week to lose yourself in the sweetly played will-they won’t-they drama of it. Tonally, Romantics Anonymous has much in common with the equally transporting Flowers for Mrs Harris, aired by Chichester Festival Theatre back in April,  as it pays homage to the fantasy of classic Technicolor musicals, the use of Paris as a location filled with glamour and possibility, setting the stage for an almost magical character transformation driven by love.

In some ways, and certainly to the eyes of the critics, Romantics Anonymous is rather thin, the characters and plots have little depth, you see almost  every twist coming from miles away and the whole production is bathed in a sugary sweetness that occasionally works against some of the show’s more complex themes about the central bitterness that makes a chocolate special. In the first 20-minutes, the broad characterisation and proliferation of stereotypes sit awkwardly with modern sensibilities and at a step removed from the production on your screen, it seems there may be little to get your teeth into.

But after seven months of complicated home working, another week of video calls with colleagues and yet another round of confusing government messaging on Covid that may yet see theatres closed within weeks, sinking into something uncomplicated, life affirming and cosy feels like a tonic. After all, knowing that Don Lockwood and Kathy Selden will walk off into the sunset together doesn’t stop you watching Singing in the Rain for the umpteenth time even if their characters are divorced from any kind of recognisable 1950s reality and the lead can have extended fantasies about being a Broadway wannabe who has an affair with a gangster’s moll.

Based on Jean-Pierre Améris and Philippe Blasband’s 2010 film Les Émotifs Anonymes, Wise Children’s show, co-written by Emma Rice, Christopher Dimond and Michael Kooman, has just enough contemporary styling to ensure the piece feels modern, relevant and relatable. The central character, Angelique, is a master chocolatier prevented by crippling shyness from announcing her skill to the world, but, unlike the models and society ladies of many 50s musicals, Angelique is a more recognisable young woman supporting herself in a difficult world, and finding love won’t change her desire to work or growing appreciation of her own independently forged skills.

Romantics Anonymous is no rescue fantasy, factory owner Jean-Rene doesn’t swoop in and save Angelique from her life of drudgery and marriage in itself isn’t the answer to their problems. While it borrows the clothes of these earlier film musicals, Romantics Anonymous is a story predicated on equality, mutual support and finding your own path as individuals (and as a couple) rather than waiting for someone else to come and save you from your life – implications that after years of rom coms and social messaging is subtly but usefully employed through a charmingly conceived but nonetheless carefully structured story.

That notion also feeds through other aspects of the show, where the fear of change is ultimately overcome when the characters make small but significant alterations to their lives and attitudes that pay dividends both personally and professionally. As the couple endure a series of stilted dates, amusingly envisaged in Rice’s production as an overwhelmed Jean-Rene looks for escape routes involving frequent bathroom breaks or an endless meal, they eventually edge towards a relationship where commitment but not necessarily marriage is the big step forward. This is similarly reflected in the fortunes of the factory where radical alteration is overlooked in favour of slightly adapting their existing process under Angelique’s supervision that reverses the direction of the business.

There is a touch of Kinky Boots here, as the factory in trouble looks for a radical solution to survive while a cast of secondary characters fear for their jobs until a stranger brings some business acumen and creative flair to the flagging business. That side of the show is well developed in the first Act as the arrival of Angelique sets the scene for inevitable change to come, although naturally that must undergo some twists and turns first. But the love plot dominates Act Two meaning the factory story and Angelique’s big reveal as the mastermind is only partially and quietly resolved so we never get to see business booming for the chocolatier once again.

Lez Brotherston- who also designed the visuals for Flowers for Mrs Harris– brings a trademark bright romanticism to the set which sparkles on screen, signalling the flair of mid-century Paris while creating space for the characters to move swiftly between office, street and factory scenes. Costumes too sit half way between the past and present while being suggestive of character, Jean-Rene with a smart yet geeky aesthetic, all knitted waistcoats and well-worn corduroy trousers that speak volumes about his repressed personality, while Angelique is stylish yet modest in a patterned coat and neat dress, a burgeoning butterfly waiting to emerge.

As Angelique, Carly Bawden is a intriguing mix of reticence and determination, a heroine who attends the eponymous Romantics Anonymous self-help group, plagued by a loose-living mother and afraid to trumpet her own chocolate-making talent. She builds her confidence as the show unfolds, ultimately bringing her a professional profile and a shot at love. Bawden’s performance is the audience’s entry point to the story, bringing out all of the tender feelings that make her relationship with Jean-Rene so heartwarnming, while demonstrating the flickers of pain and bewilderment as Jean-Rene’s muddled reactions leave her confused and doubtful. Yet Bawden ensures that Angelique remains a modern heroine, that professional fulfillment and a relationship on her own terms are the outcomes she aspires to rather than just love for its own sake.

Marc Antolin has a harder job to make the troubled Jean-Rene as sympathetic. Haunted by the expectations of a domineering father, he runs away from his emotions at almost every point in the show. Antolin manages the comedy well, never overplaying the ridiculousness of his dating disasters, but shows that his awkward and sometimes cruel behaviour originates in Jean-Rene’s own feelings of inadequacy and fear of change. A man stuck in his ways, Antolin charts the slow change in Jean-Rene, given an inner illumination as he first recognises then pursues his growing feelings for Angelique gaining confidence, with the odd credible wobble, that makes them a perfect match.

The hard-working supporting cast including Me’sha Bryan, Philip Cox, Omari Douglas, Harry Hepple, Sandra Marvin, Laura Jane Matthewson and Gareth Snook play around 20 roles between them helping to transport the story from the friendly factory workers who are much quicker to notice the multiple effects of Angelique’s presence than their boss, to the titular Romantics Anonymous group who give the a lovely texture to the collection of outsiders that the show ultimately celebrates.

By live staging this production, offering a regional tour available to an international audience, placing the cast and crew in a Covid bubble and offering a final hybrid performance with a socially-distanced audience in the room, Romantics Anonymous is proof that musicals are learning faster and smarter than their drama counterparts. How creatives respond to enforced closures and the outcomes of a pandemic that may change the way we view theatre in the longer term is telling, and while London’s major venues play it fairly safe with the monologue, regional theatre is stealing a march. And it is the musical that is proving most adaptable.

Romantics Anonymous was streamed from the Bristol Old Vic via regional partnerships. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

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