Amelie UK premiere is at the intimate Watermill Newbury until the 18thMay before embarking on a long tour of venues in England, Scotland and Ireland including some large houses like Wimbledon New Theatre, Woking Victoria Theatre and the Manchester Opera House through to October. It will be worth catching it on the tour to see how it fares as it expands onto these large traditional proscenium arch stages. However here at the Watermill it is off to a very good start capturing the delightful quirky Frenchness of the original 2001 film with Audrey Tautou and reinventing itself by all accounts from its Broadway musical debut.
Its success is built around the petite French-Canadian actress Audrey Brisson who has a joyous expressive face, large sparkling eyes and a glorious voice that means you can’t take your eyes off her even with the rest of the ensemble cast towering around her. She is Amelie the awkward young girl, home schooled with a heart condition who lives in a garret above an Art Nouveau Paris metro station and spies on the odd collection of people passing through. Gradually she makes connections between them and almost invisibly brings lonely people together while still shying away from a relationship herself. The story takes us through delightful flights of fantasy and with an amazingly inventive staging that is amusing, engaging and keeps the pace up throughout most of the show.
Director Michael Fentiman and Movement Director Tom Jackson Greaves weave their magic in many of the show stopping highlights. When she enters her room, she uses an unusual lift and when watching the news on TV of the death of “Lady Diana” in 1997 she imagines it is her that has died and is serenaded by a hilarious Elton John parody sung by Caolan McCarthy, “Goodbye, Amelie”. When we meet her as a child, she sits alongside a fantastic Kneehigh puppet of herself to sing “World’s Best Dad”. When she gives a man a fig tart, we have a bizarrely amusing routine of three large fig men taunting him and when she teases her father with cards from his missing gnome, we have a large singing gnome in “There’s no place like Gnome”. Each routine is slightly bonkers but emerges almost naturally from the narrative!
The central love story emerges slowly between her and Nino (Chris Jared), another oddball obsessed with collecting photographs left in the station photo booth and trying to track down the mystery man who keeps appearing in them while working in a sex shop! Her first attempt to meet him dressed for no obvious reason as a nun ends in “Sister’s Pickle”. There are touching performances from Johnson Willis as the reclusive artiste Dufayel (dressed like Van Gogh) and from Jez Unwin as Bretodeau , both isolated men who she connects with and good support from the fellow waitresses in the café who she also secretly impacts.
The music by Daniel Messe and Nathan Tysen is pleasant with a strong authentic
French feel from the pianos and accordion with occasional musical phrases that seem resonant of other tunes. It is a light frivolous score that sometimes gets your toes tapping but usually just makes you smile with enjoyment. Once again, the Watermill has assembled a talented cast of actors- musicians to perform the songs in what is becoming an overused musical structure at the venue. While it sounds good it does lead to the most overcrowded moments when all the cast are on stage with their instruments and the movement becomes mechanical and dull. The best moments are when most of the musicians are positioned to each side and the leads are given space to perform. This will be surely corrected as the production expands to fill the larger touring venues stages.
The set design by Madeline Girling is wonderful transforming the venue into a metro station and brilliantly using the photo booth as a door entrance, confessional and rooftop for smooth scene changes. The French café where Amelie works is also cleverly created with a few simple props that can seamlessly be converted into the commuter trains. Once again it will be very interesting to see how this wonderful use of space is restaged for larger spaces.
This is a delightful show, imaginatively staged, beautifully played , and once again showing what the Watermill is capable of delivering and like Wiper Times , Crazy for you and Teddy looks certain to have a good production life beyond the venue over the coming year.
Review by Nick Wayne
Seat: Stalls row C | Price: £26