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‘Irresistibly charming & life affirming’: ROMANTICS ANONYMOUS – Bristol Old Vic (Online review)

Back in the early part of lockdown, one of the most successful shows in the sphere of online theatre was Wise Children directed by Emma Rice. Now the theatrical company she named after that show has revived Romantics Anonymous her farewell present to the Globe Theatre at the end of her short tenure there. And, marvellously, it is perhaps the nearest anyone has yet come to re-creating the experience of proper live theatre.

The show is being performed at the Bristol Old Vic as a stream each evening and on Sunday opens its doors to actual patrons. The show does not have to employ social distancing as the company placed itself in a Covid free bubble and so they are able to put on a properly staged performance with full lighting and sound, scenery, costumes and props; there is even a small band. Apart from an actual audience (admittedly a rather critical exception) all is as it should be: c’est magnifique!

There’s a lot about chocolate in this show – no bad thing, of course – and like the product itself this musical is sweet with some bitter notes in the background and certainly works on both the level of a light confection and something more robust for the committed chocolatophile/musicophile.

It is a story of hidden passions and facing up to difficulties as many of the characters have to battle with their inner demons. Angélique is one such; although she makes probably the best chocolates in the world, she is cripplingly shy to the point where she faints if she has to address even the smallest body of people. Her new boss Jean-René (it’s definitely not Jean-Pierre) is also socially gauche and clings to the past in the shape of the chocolate factory bequeathed to him by his dead father. Following a mix up, Angélique is appointed to sales and has to overcome her retiring personality by seeking help from a support group. She also begins a halting liaison with her boss and by gentle subterfuge manages to overhaul his attitude to life in general and to chocolate making in particular; thus his business is rescued.

The story is rather trite even, dare I say it, saccharine but the way it is put over is irresistibly charming and life affirming. In the two main roles Carly Bawden and Marc Antolin make an art out of reticence and put across the numbers with panache and savoir faire. The seven other members of the team play a host of other characters most memorably the various dysfunctional members of Les Emotifs Anonymes, the support group which Angélique joins. They are a well drilled and evenly matched ensemble but for me the standout was Gareth Snook as a trio of eccentric characters who light up the show.

Rice’s busy direction and nuanced script ensures that homage is paid to the original film and keeps everything très chic; there is, bien sûr, her trademark flying sequence which gives the denouement an extra lift (pardonnez moi). Fortunately, there’s no general language barrier. The show starts en français, but we are all bidden to eat a square of magic chocolate and, voilà, all is suddenly translated.

Everything about the show is French… very French… from the Parisian signage in the set design of Lez Brotherston to the striped Breton tops, red neckerchiefs and berets worn by the ensemble (and, apparently, the camera operators). Etta Murfitt’s choreography oozes Gallic style and the sound of accordions is never far away. The whole thing is forever trembling on the verge of cliché, but this is so knowingly done that I’m inclined to exaggeratedly shrug my shoulders and declare “Bof!”

But, quel domage, I haven’t mentioned the songs and as this is a musical that would be remiss. Composer Michael Kooman doesn’t particularly adhere to the French stylings established by the rest of the show (perhaps that would have been a cliché too far) but instead settles for what might be described as a mid-Atlantic feel which doesn’t always inspire. Perhaps this is partly down to spending so much time composing for the Disney organisation. The lyrics of his partner Chris Dimond fare a little better and there some definite laugh out loud lines. A highlight is the song that opens the second half delivered by Philip Cox. This has very little to do with the show proper but as it spells out the possible dangers of watching theatre online it is an expected little bonus which certainly made me smile.

As Forrest Gump once said, “Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get”. The fact is with this show you probably do, but really familiarity in this particular instance certainly doesn’t breed contempt. Rather it delivers a warm glow of well-being like a mug of hot drinking chocolate with extra whipped cream and a glacé cherry on top. Even more so as it brings us the closest to theatrical normality that has so far been achieved. Bravo, encore et merci beaucoup!

from News, Reviews and Features – My Theatre Mates

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