In another of these inventive and innovative stage moves, this week the Bristol Old Vic are performing Wise Children’s production of Romantics Anonymous, to an empty auditorium but streamed through the magic of the Internet to your home – and it’s about as close to the sense of a real theatrical experience as most of us are going to get during these Covid times. Mrs Chrisparkle and I tuned in on Wednesday as that was the broadcast that was specifically geared to the Midlands, with proceeds benefiting not only the Bristol Old Vic but some Midland theatres including our very own Royal and Derngate here in Northampton. At £15 a ticket (we played fair and bought two) it’s a very reasonable price for what could – hopefully – be a tremendous theatrical experience.
And it is! Romantics Anonymous – a musical by Michael Kooman, Christopher Dimond and Emma Rice – is based on the French 2010 film Les Emotifs Anonymes, and is the story of Angélique, hopeless in relationships, devoid of confidence, but an absolute whizz at creating the perfect chocolate. When her boss M. Mercier, chocolate provider to the French cognoscenti, dies, Angélique applies for a job at The Chocolate Factory, where owner Jean-René is as awkward and hopeless as she is. However, the company is going under because they haven’t kept up with the times. Can Angélique turn around the company’s ailing fortunes – indeed, will she confess that she is the famous Mercier chocolatière – and can she and Jean-René scrape together enough self-confidence to win each other’s hearts? You’ll have to watch to find out!
Romantics Anonymous originally played at the Globe in 2017, and this production opened at the Bristol Old Vic in January 2020, to great reviews, shortly before the world fell apart. This streamed production features largely the same cast, although with a little shifting of roles. With a compact but fantasy-glamorous set by the one and only Lez Brotherston, amusing and charming choreography by New Adventures’ Etta Murfitt, a classy and witty band performance led by Nigel Lilley and crackingly quirky direction by Emma Rice, this is a delightful exploration of love and social terror that warms the cockles of your heart and makes you cheer on the characters as you encourage them to find happiness. I’m sure it was splendid to watch in the flesh, but catching it through the Internet is definitely the next best thing, and I hope that at least one of the broadcasts will be recorded for future entertainment over the years.
There are so many amusing and winning aspects to the show as a whole – here are a few of my own favourite moments. I loved how it abruptly changes from French to English; Jean-René’s hopeless attempts at self-improvement home yoga; the running gag about the Mumbler and how he unexpectedly comes to Angélique’s rescue; and the Health and Safety Advisory song at the Interval. The songs are either charming, delicate and heartfelt, or incredibly funny; two songs called (I think – difficult to identify without a proper programme) Je suis émotif, and Savoir faire specifically come to mind.
As you might expect in a production led by Emma Rice, the cast work together seamlessly as a beautiful ensemble, but with everyone’s individual talents flashing out from the stage like a series of twinkling lights. Angélique is played by the fantastic Carly Bawden, who was stunning in Sheffield’s My Fair Lady a few years back, with her gloriously pure voice and terrific stage presence. You can absolutely believe that she is a chocolate maker supreme (indeed, she proves it in the first few minutes of the show!) and she gets you on her side to will her on to greater self-confidence as the evening progresses. She is matched by the brilliant Marc Antolin, whom we loved in Emma Rice’s Flying Lovers of Vitebsk, as the tetchily awkward Jean-René. Employing all his expert clowning skills, Mr Antolin gives a superb physical performance conveying all the character’s social anxieties, but delightfully understated so that less is more. Simple effects like his deliberate flatfoot walk to and from the restaurant toilet, or his restrained facial expressions allowing his body to reveal the character’s thoughts, are just wonderful to watch.
I also really enjoyed the wide range of characterisations by Me’sha Bryan, including her wonderfully Brummie HR lady Suzanne, and Mimi in the Emotifs Anonymes self-help group. Sandra Marvin is as glorious as usual as the anxious dermatologist and Angélique’s dominating mother, and Harry Hepple’s constantly chirpy presence brings a lightness of touch to his roles as Ludo and Remi. Gareth Snook gives a great all-round performance as the magnanimous Mercier, the outrageous Marini and the hilarious Mumbler. But every member of the cast pulls out all the stops and delivers a fine and thoroughly enjoyable performance. I should also point out that the camera work that delivers these fine performances to your living room is absolutely spot on, framing scenes so that you get an overall impression of how the cast and set are interacting, and even encouraging a couple of slightly fourth-wall-breaking moments.
If Angélique creates the Jesus Christ of French Desserts, then (forgive my blasphemy) Romantics Anonymous delivers a whole gospel’s worth of positivity and love. There are still tickets available for the rest of the week here – not only do you get to see a great show, you get to support the theatre community and keep the arts alive in these perilous times. A Montelimar of magic, a Fondant of fun, a Noisette of… I dunno…. niceness. Do your heart a favour and see this show!
Production photos by Steve Tanner