Review: Amélie the Musical (Criterion Theatre)

The show finds a fresh home in Piccadilly Circus

Audrey Brisson and the company of Amélie
Audrey Brisson and the company of Amélie
© Pamela Raith

"Times are hard for dreamers" goes the breakout song from this American adaptation of the 2001 French film about a stubbornly altruistic Parisian waitress, but that lyric could equally have applied to the entire theatre industry during the last 15 months. Dreamers can rejoice then that Michael Fentiman's gorgeous production – heavily revised from the unsuccessful Broadway original by a different director – has found its way into the West End, where this unusual musical seems infinitely better suited to the whipped cream moulding and dust pink plush of the Criterion than it did to the considerably less atmospheric Other Palace, where it sold out pre-pandemic.

The aforementioned number is staged with Audrey Brisson in the titular role – at times bearing a striking resemblance to the screen Amélie, Audrey Tautou – in the midst of a maelstrom of rapturously swaying actor-musicians, like a diminutive conductor borne aloft by her ecstatic orchestra. It's a magical effect, one of many in a production that consistently delights in the possibilities of live theatre, from witty use of mime to Elliot Griggs's evocative, precise lighting to Dik Downey's irresistible puppets. Tom Jackson Greaves's movement direction goes from rousing stomping to summarily redefining expectations of what a performer can do with an expensive orchestral instrument strapped to them!

Madeleine Girling's set, looking like a cross between a Paris Metro station and an Art Deco hotel lobby gone to seed, is a thing of absolute beauty and crucially grounds the show in a semi-mythical Paris both instantly recognisable and ruefully unattainable. Upright pianos are swirled together to make walkways and platforms, while an entire café appears in the blink of an eye, and Amélie is borne aloft to her circular scarlet eyrie by gripping onto a lamp shade soaring in from the flies.

Withdrawn, watchful and unknowable, Amélie herself is a strange heroine for a musical, with no big "I want" song or cri de cœur until very late in the show, but magnetic Brisson invests her with charm, quiet intensity and a versatile, piercing soprano. In a uniformly excellent company, whose only missteps are a couple of crimes against the French accent, Kate Robson-Stuart's statuesque circus performer-turned-restaurant owner and Caolan McCarthy's comically blocked writer are particular stand-outs.

So entrancing are the technical elements here, and so ferociously talented is the multi-tasking 16-strong cast, that it's almost easy to overlook the fact that, as a musical, Amélie is a bit of a mess. The story, slight but meandering, is hard to follow if you haven't already seen the film, and the muddy sound design doesn't help, also rendering a large proportion of Nathan Tysen and Daniel Messé's lyrics unintelligible. Nonetheless, Messé's shimmering, surging, folk-inflected score often soars and is never less than attractive, with Barnaby Race's arrangements of melancholic strings and sparkling woodwinds overlaid with accordion, suggesting a lyrical Gallic answer to Once. The singing frequently thrills the blood.

Set anywhere but romantic, enchanted Paris, this non-tale of a (possibly chronically depressed) young woman wandering a city not-quite-connecting with other inhabitants probably wouldn't be perceived as ripe for musicalisation. As if acutely aware of this, Craig Lucas's book is bewilderingly over-stuffed with minor characters, almost all of whom apparently need their own song, with the result that there's insufficient emotional punch left for the central relationship between the heroine and her distant, morose father and the will-they-won't-they romantic plot concerning Chris Jared's appealingly tormented, superbly sung photographer.

Fentiman matches the unruly script with a playful, go-for-broke stylistic approach featuring singing fish, a globe-trotting gnome, marauding human-sized fruit dragging a curmudgeonly grocer to oblivion like a fresh produce version of Don Giovanni and, surprising even in a show as eccentric as this one, Elton John. This "throwing everything at the wall" aesthetic reaches its apotheosis in a scene which sees Brisson dressed as a nun, singing her heart out adjacent to a display cabinet full of dildos: you certainly won't be bored at Amélie, but you may find your tolerance threshold for whimsical charm somewhat tested.

It may not be a great musical, or even a very coherent one, but Amélie is undeniably successful as a fanciful Valentine to the City of Light, and, in this iteration, as a celebration of the unbeatable power of live music. It also, in the hands of Michael Fentiman and a world class creative team and cast, represents a joyful return to the West End for bold and imaginative theatricality.

Tickets are on sale now.

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Closed: 25 September 2021