Review: Romantics Anonymous (Bristol Old Vic)

Emma Rice’s hit musical returns with a short UK run ahead of a US tour

Carly Bawden in Romantics Anonymous
Carly Bawden in Romantics Anonymous
© Steve Tanner

It seems like longer than two and a bit years since Emma Rice first unveiled Romantics Anonymous. The small chamber musical based on a French film of the same name follows a pair of chocolatiers, Angélique and Jean-Pierre, who fall in love despite their anxiety-wracked personalities. But like the small nuggets of confectionary at the heart of the show, the taste of the production's sweet-natured whimsy and sugary characters has lingered on, with an assortment of fans clamouring for its return.

It now has for a brief spell in Bristol before a lengthier tour in the US, produced by Rice's top-notch company Wise Children. Book writer Rice, composer Michael Kooman and lyricist Christopher Dimond have not been resting idle since 2017 – two numbers have been seamlessly added to the show, characters have been slightly rejigged and new cast members have been brought into the fold.

From the moment they lock eyes, you know Angélique (a returning Carly Bawden, on top form as ever) and Jean-Pierre (a superbly deadpan Marc Antolin) are destined to be together – it's less a case of will-they-won't-they and more a case of will-they-please-just-get-on-with-it-already-before-my-heart-melts. Angélique, timid yet talented, is masking her cooking skills while posing as a chocolate salesman at Jean-Pierre's floundering company. With financial ruin imminent, it's left to the pair to sort out their lives, their emotions and their recipes and save the day.

The show, just like Angélique's chocolates, brings out different flavours and tastes the longer you let it wash over you. Those harbouring a bit of heartfelt Hexagone humour will find it in spades (Gareth Snook makes musical murmuring into a scene-stealing experience), while a more sophisticated exploration of the ways mental health can meddle in romantic affairs simmers beneath the surface.

The tunes are quaint though sometimes unmemorable, and only a couple really stand out: Snook has a fantastic dance sequence at the start of the first act that makes great use of the Bristol Old Vic's roomier stage (the show first ran in the much more intimate Sam Wanamaker Playhouse). A second sees Angélique and Jean-Pierre galavant around Lyons on what must be the most awkward first date in theatre history.

Rice ladles out witty gag after witty gag – particularly for the members of Angélique's support group and an assortment of oddball food critics that rise to sample her concoctions. There's a delicacy of craft that is the hallmark of a Rice show, with every character given a chance to shine. Its stay in the UK may be short and sweet for now, but it's hard not to imagine Rice's fizzy Francophile fable having another life on British shores soon.