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Review: Romantics Anonymous (Sam Wanamaker Playhouse)

Emma Rice's final show directing while head of Shakespeare's Globe is a beautiful treat of a new musical

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Romantics Anonymous is Emma Rice's parting gift to Shakespeare's Globe. A sweet treat of a new musical, wrapped in fun and fancy, and bound up with a ribbon of magic. Performed in a space that is itself a little box of delights, the usually candlelit Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, the piece is Rice's final as director while head of the South Bank venue.

Having been pushed to leave following an argument about electric lighting, you might think Rice's farewell would leave a bitter taste in the mouth. But the director ensures that there's only joy to be had here, something which has characterised each of her seasons both inside and out at the Globe.

Adapted from a French film, Romantics Anonymous tells the story of two exceptionally shy, socially awkward people. Angelique is a chocolate maker while Jene-Rene is a chocolate factory owner. She faints when faced with the pressure of talking to people, while he's entirely lacking in self-confidence and is letting his father's once-successful business drip down the drain. Slowly, with many stops and starts, and the help of some unlikely acquaintances, we watch as the two unite in their differences and put their heads and hearts together to forge ahead and realise their dreams. It is lovely.

It's also, as is Rice's want, exceptionally funny. The comedy flows throughout everything from the ensemble cast, led by Carly Bawden as Angelique and Dominic Marsh as Jean-Rene, to Christopher Dimond's hilarious lyrics. Gareth Snook gets several comedy chances - not least cross-dressing as operatic chocolate shop owner Madame Marini - but the entire cast is given the opportunity to show off their funny bones. I loved Philip Cox's straight-talking dad – "can everyone just stop singing now" - I guffawed at Natasha Jayetileke's Mimi, who can't say no and therefore buys PPI twice a week, and I giggled at Lauren Samuels' Australian self-help tape. The ensemble each play several parts, making some astoundingly quick costume changes, and each embody their roles perfectly. While Bawden and Marsh's characters provide the thrust of the emotional journey, the rest of the cast are there to have fun with it. They absolutely do.

The songwriting duo Dimond and Michael Kooman fold their tunes discreetly into the body of the piece and each one has a jaunty, classic French style, complete with concertina sounds. They are often brilliantly tongue-in-cheek. The lyrics are clever and direct and the warmth and intimate nature of the songs are perfect for the romantic Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. Rice has a knack for creating work for her venues and although some may baulk at the scaffolding at the back of the theatre on which stand several flashing neon signs, the piece in fact plays to all the strengths of the space. The acoustics are nigh-on perfect (amplified a little) and the proximity of the audience means there is a palpable connection between the players and their watchers. We are there, every step of the way.

There are one or two tiny missteps – Angelique's tricksy drunken mum is underwritten, Jean-Rene's song "Safe on the Ground" falls a little flat and the piece's overall tone very occasionally steps slightly too close to pantomime. But "Savoir Faire" – sung by haughty French waiters at a restaurant – is a hilarious, excellent thing. And "Wings" sung as the lovers begin to face the idea of spending a night together, has bottomless charm, style and wonder. It makes your heart race.

Like a box of beautifully delicate hand-made bonbons, Romantics Anonymous has been lovingly crafted. It is a musical with fervour, heart and soul and it is a total scrumptious pleasure.

Romantics Anonymous runs at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse until 6 January.