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Parisian musical based on much loved Oscar-winning film.
Photo credit: Pamela Raith

June 18, 2019
An imperfect but deeply charming reworking of a classic film.

Oxford New Theatre, Mon 17th June 2019

Amélie The Musical faithfully follows the plot of the film, told mainly through song. The cast perform the music onstage - all very heavy on strings and accordion, a nice nod to the music of the film. This creates a rich, lively ensemble, who are a joy to watch.

The set was stunning - a stylised metro station, but the clock becomes Amélie’s bedroom, the photo booth becomes a series of doors and a carousel, the two pianos perched there become the bar and tabac of a cafe. The aesthetic and many of the theatrical devices owed a lot to Kneehigh, which lead Audrey Brisson has worked with a lot in the past. The whole effect was visually stunning and did a great job of transforming the magic of the original film into a new form.

While I enjoyed this musical, and it was fun to relive moments of an old classic, I would have liked to have seen it diverge more from the film. There were awkward moments that just needed the close up camera work to come across (like the dropping of a perfume bottle lid) and also some elements that felt dated in a bad way - the word 'spaz', while it is in the film, yes, hits an audience differently 20 years later. The same is true of Amélie grabbing a blind busker to describe all the sights to him that he’s missing - without the context of the original, this comes across as pretty patronising. Where the show diverges from its source material a little and inhabits its new form is where it really shines. I would also have liked a bit more dancing and some more ambitious movement - Brisson has a long background in Cirque du Soleil and Danny Mac is most recently well known for a dance show, so it was a little disappointing not to see a bit more movement from both of them.

The first half of the show was, for me, too faithful to the original and didn’t really work. There were a lot of beats that felt like they were hit for the sake of mimicking the film, but didn’t really transfer to the format of a musical - the entirety of Amélie’s childhood felt like it would have been much better covered in a flashback later in the show rather than as the second number as it left us without a sense of narrative present for a long time. While the show was beautiful to look at, the story seemed to drift, feeling baggy and over-long. The performances also seemed a little off - it felt like the whole thing could have been a lot tighter and more focussed. There were some stand-out moments: the opening and closing numbers of this act were fantastic, and the magic of the set still very much shone through.

The second half, however, came together in a big way. The show loosened up, diverged from the film a bit more and became a lot more fun. There were a couple of riotously surreal numbers involving dancing gnomes and figs which gave a great sense of anarchic fun. We also get to see more of Danny Mac, who gave a truly lovely performance of Nino, and Kate Robson-Stewart’s confident and magnetic performance of Suzanne.

Overall, this is a treat of a show for fans of either the original film or musicals in general. Though there felt to be a couple of missed opportunities in the production, it is a beautiful, rich and magical piece of theatre.

April 18, 2019
An ingenious, affirming, heartwarming musical. Everyone should see it.

The Watermill Theatre, Mon 15th April 2019

When I heard that Watermill Theatre were adapting Amélie, I thought ‘Really? But Amélie is such a cinematic film. How can a stage production possibly do justice to a film that is so defined by its extreme stylisation, surreal colour grading and careful composition on camera?’

This production more than does it justice. The staging finds imaginative and enchanting ways to transport the story to the stage, and to enrich everything charming and unique about the film. Lighting and split staging are used to direct the audience’s attention with the same focus as a camera lens, and to pick out little details and moments like the flash of a photo booth. The set changes seamlessly and surprisingly in a constant evolution of movement: new settings emerge from the unlikeliest of hiding places; props appear in the actor’s hands organically, then disappear again just as fluidly. The design for this show is lusciously colour-rich and intricate. The costumes pick up the film’s distinctive dark reds, greens and yellows, and there is a worn, nostalgic aesthetic to the beautiful wooden instruments and the elaborately crafted set. This show also features some expert puppetry – the young Amélie could really be alive, with her expressive movements and thoughtful blinking eyes.

The music is incredible: jaunty melodies that capture the same busy, magical atmosphere as the memorable film soundtrack, without referencing it too heavily. The lyrics (in English but with rich, expressive French accents) flow naturally, with rhymes that feel imaginative but never forced. Perhaps my favourite thing about this production is the way that the music is integrated into the performance. All the music happens onstage, and the actors waltz, sway and bustle about, playing string instruments of all sizes; an accordion, a flute, filling the stage with music and movement to accompany their own beautiful voices. The two pianos are particularly important members of the cast, and I must congratulate them for staying perfectly in tune despite being full of lettuce. The play is almost entirely musical, perfect for a story with such unwavering spirit and energy; the rare few spoken lines stand out and silence becomes immensely powerful.

This cast as a whole is extremely talented. The performers sang with feeling and acted with nuance, whilst also playing even cumbersome instruments like cello and double bass gracefully; amazingly, the whole endeavour looked joyful, relaxed and effortless. The ensemble work in this production is incredible, evoking the human texture of a busy Parisian street. Narrative instants emerge from the constant ebb and flow, visually supporting themes from the play about the importance and interconnection of single moments in apparently unconnected lives. The unlikely band of characters wins our hearts. I particularly loved the scene in which Amélie’s friends at the café question Nino to make sure “his intentions are honourable”. Who wouldn’t love to have such strong, loyal friends looking out for you? Johnson Willis as the Glass Man showed gentle defiance in the face of vulnerability. Caolan McCarthy magnificently owned the stage during his startling solo.

Audrey Brisson is simply wonderful as Amélie – striking, strange and completely loveable. Her high notes are fresh, bright and enchanting, while her lower notes seem to access something deep in her psyche. She and Nino (Chris Jared) embodied a tenderness I have never before seen onstage. The whole cast chemistry is beautiful, filling the stage with warmth and energy. They extended this warmth to the audience too, so that our spontaneous laughter felt like part of the production. I’m sure the Watermill's close, cosy auditorium enhanced this effect, vanishing the distance between performer and spectator into a shared act of discovery. There were moments when the entire audience held its breath as one.

If you get a chance to see this ingenious, affirming, heartwarming production, don’t miss it! It is something incredibly special.

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