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.