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Review: Romantics Anonymous (Live from Bristol Old Vic)

The Wise Children musical is beamed out from the Bristol Old Vic stage across the world

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Carly Bawden and Marc Antolin
© Steve Tanner

It's hard writing about theatre in a pandemic, at a moment when the government seems impervious to the industry's plight and when people's livelihoods are in peril. I am so grateful and admiring of all the valiant people managing to put anything on in these dreadful circumstances, in an attempt to provide work for their creative teams and entertainment for the vast audience of the theatre-loving deprived that I find it hard to criticise.

But I was disappointed by this production of Romantics Anonymous, streamed from Bristol Old Vic in a virtual form to support theatres around the country, many of which it planned to visit live. The performances are lovely, the production by Emma Rice's Wise Children is characteristically imaginative, but the show itself is anodyne. For a musical that advocates risk and taste, it is surprising bland.

It's based on the film Les Émotifs Anonymes, about a shy chocolate maker who mets a shy chocolate factory owner and together – after various mishaps – they fall in love and make beautiful sweets. The set up is charming and skilfully played with Angélique (Carly Bawden), always regarded as an extremely odd girl and one who faints when anyone looks at her, meeting Jean-René (Marc Antolin), a disappointment of a man, terrified by the controlling ghost of his late father, and recognising a mutual adoration of the way that the bitterness of chocolate is what makes it so sweet.

The supporting cast of seven are terrific, energetically turning their hand to a variety of parts with dexterous and enthusiastic aplomb. Their portrayal of the oddballs of the émotifs anonymes help group, as sad a bunch as you are ever likely to encounter, is a particular pleasure. Emma Rice's direction and – especially – Etta Murfitt's savvy choreography are gently effective. The set by Lez Brotherston is a delight of flashing neon and vintage signage. But the musical itself lacks the same sparkle.

It is hard to know precisely what has gone wrong. Perhaps it is the music and lyrics by Americans Michael Kooman and Christopher Dimond, which have a crushing mid-Atlantic sameness. There is not much French flavour or, come to that, much flavour at all. Each song passes in a blur of sweetness; not unpleasant but not memorable either.

Or perhaps it is that this show has to be experienced live (it was loved on its premiere at the Sam Wanamaker Theatre and booked to go on international tour when Covid struck.) Digitally, in fairly straightforward medium and close-up shots, it flags. It is being played in this form until 26 Sept, with a final available with captions on Sept 28. But there is also one live performance on Sept 27, to a socially distanced audience, which may delight the tastebuds more.

Whatever the reason, though it's possible to love the gracefully pitched and beautifully sung performances from Bawden and Antolin (both playing difficult characters with real finesse), the overall effect of the show is that of a rather ordinary coffee cream: the last chocolate in the box and the one that really could do with a bit more zing.