Friday 27 October 2017

Theatre Review: Romantics Anonymous (Sam Wanamaker Playhouse)

Forget Follies. (And, believe me, when it comes to that damn “Loveland” sequence, I’m still trying to....) A little further down the Southbank there’s now a lovely, intimate, humanly-scaled alternative. As the opening production of her final “Winter Season” as Globe Artistic Director, Emma Rice has turned the stage of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse into a chocolate factory, adapting Jean-Pierre Améris’s 2010 French-Belgian rom com Les émotifs anonymes into a sweetheart of a new musical that charms and amuses throughout.

Rice and the Globe board may not have proved to be an ideal match, but Rice and “le cinéma Français” certainly are, as previously demonstrated by Kneehigh’s glorious take on Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg back in 2011. Romantics Anonymous has a similar kind of spirit to that show: ludic and loving, soulful and silly, by turns. But, though difficult themes are glanced at, there’s much less melancholy in this material. Working with lyricist Christopher Dimond and composer Michael Kooman, Rice makes Romantics Anonymous into the equivalent of a big, warm hug: just what’s needed to brighten winter nights.  

The plot concerns the burgeoning romance between two characters with social anxiety issues. Angélique is a timid girl who, wishing to build her confidence, starts attending sessions at the “Les émotifs anonymes” support group. Through a contact there she ends up working as a sales rep at the chocolate factory run by Jean-René, a guy who, it turns out, is even more introverted than she is, as he skulks in his office listening to passive aggressive self-help tapes. A disastrous date follows, before love starts to blossom. But with the factory under threat, Angélique may be called upon to truly overcome her inhibitions and reveal her own secret chocolate-making skills.

Rice has said that she wanted to make Romantics Anonymous “very European” in tone, but in many ways the show feels British through and through: I found myself thinking of The Two Ronnies and Dinnerladies at various points. As in Cherbourg, the Frenchness of the source is intermittently played up with “haw-hee-haw-ing” cheek, particularly when the beret- and striped-shirt-sporting ensemble archly croon the hilarious “Don’t Think about Love” while wheeling out a bed and flinging rose petals for our hero and heroine’s first night together.

Dimond and Kooman have talked about French influences on the score, too – from Satie to Debussy – and, played here by a skilled quartet (Sophie Creaner on woodwind, Mike Porter on percussion, Llinos Richards on cello and MD Jim Henson on piano), the music has a lovely, light, gently undulating quality, with just enough bite and quirk to make revisiting the score an attractive proposition. The lyrics are variable, but sung with conviction by the cast, who seize on the wittiest lines and deliver them with gusto.

Indeed, Rice has recruited many of her favourite actors for this confection (including several from her Twelfth Night, which opened the “Summer of Love” season back in May). They all shine, with Carly Bawden (Twelfth Night’s minx of a Maria) and Dominic Marsh making a charmingly awkward pair; they’re especially delightful when singing together on “Some Things are Too Good for Words,” as funny and sweetly sexy a duet as recent musical theatre has offered.

Bawden and Marsh are well supported by a superb ensemble who multitask with gleeful aplomb, whether it’s Marc Antolin as a computer geek and a strident chef, or Joanna Riding moving from gruff Corrie-ish factory worker to incongruously sexy matriarch. (Riding also takes the wheel for one of the funniest driving sequences that the stage has seen recently.) I also loved Gareth Snook as both Angélique’s father-figure benefactor and a highly-strung prospective female buyer, and Natasha Jayetileke as the support group attendee who’s so bad at saying “No” that she buys PPI twice a week. (Since Rice, in her "Letter" regarding her departure from the Globe, seemed to define herself as a people-pleaser, can we detect a bit of wry self-portraiture here?) Lez Brotherston’s glowing design (with location shifts signalled by neon signs) also helps to keep the proceedings fleet and fluid, and Etta Murfitt’s witty choreography makes the most of the small space. 

Romantics Anonymous is slight, and those resistant to Rice’s brand of whimsy will doubtless find it too winsome a proposition – though in fact there’s a steely undercurrent to the show's presentation of the courage it takes to embrace change and face fears. The ending feels a bit rushed, and not quite magical enough, yet. Still, small of scale but huge of heart, this show is a charmer, and a perfect start to the final season of Rice’s all-too-brief time at the helm of the Globe.

Romantics Anonymous is booking until 6 January. Further information here

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