Review – Romantics Anonymous, Bristol Old Vic Online, 23rd September 2020

Romantics AnonymousIn 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.

 

AngeliqueAnd 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!

 

Angelique and Jean-Rene at dinnerRomantics 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.

 

Les Emotifs AnonymesThere 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.

 

 Les Emotifs AnonymesAs 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. Angelique and Jean-ReneShe 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.

 

RestaurantI 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.

 

TogetherIf 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

Review – The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 25th April 2018

Flying LoversThis intriguing title – The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk – reflects the lives and love of Marc and Bella Chagall; he the famous artist, she the less famous writer. He was a penniless art student when they met; she was the daughter of a wealthy jeweller. They lived in Vitebsk (I’d never heard of it, I’m afraid) which today is the fourth largest city in Belarus. They married in 1915, had a daughter, Ida; they lived in St Petersburg, Moscow, Paris and New York, as his renown and artistry grew. She died in 1944 of a sudden virus infection, easily curable if there hadn’t been a shortage of penicillin due to the war. He went on to marry again and lived till the ripe old age of 97, finally shuffling off this mortal coil in 1985.

TFLOV-prod11The bare bones of a life can look stark, but Emma Rice’s production for Kneehigh brings Marc and Bella to life with such vivacity, colour, warmth, humour and a sense of sheer love that the mere dates and facts of a relationship become meaningless. Even through the hard times they never lost the ability to be playful together, and to delight in the simple things of life – like clocks, and colours, confetti and funny hats. Like all relationships, in the words of Meera Syal, it wasn’t all Ha Ha Hee Hee. There were times when he didn’t provide the emotional support that she needed. Despite his clownish demeanour, Chagall took his painting extremely seriously, frequently to the detriment of his family life.TFLOV-prod1 His baby daughter was four days old before he finally took time to meet her. He tears out a page from the book Bella is writing to make a paper butterfly for Ida. He isn’t remotely interested in the news that the Nazis have overrun Bella’s parents’ jewellery shop. He mocks her attempts to write because she doesn’t let it rule her life. Yet she loves him unconditionally, and always bounces back with a smile, a song and a game. We even discover how forgiving she is after her death. It’s an amazing portrayal of the resilience of the human spirit; if you’re fuelled with love, somehow your tank never runs empty.

TFLOV-prod2The playfulness of their relationship and the fantasy element of Marc’s paintings are beautifully realised by the staging; a wonky platform and frame, off which suspend a surreal clock, phone receiver, buckets and handles – all you need to reflect an unorthodox existence. Other characters in their life are represented by a balloon, or a disembodied voice, while Marc dons an old black lace shawl to provide a hilarious cameo of Bella’s mother. There are two other members of the cast; James Gow and Ian Ross provide the stunningly gorgeous music with their piano, cello and other instruments.TFLOV-prod3 Some of Mr Ross’ compositions evoke traditional Jewish folk music with superb energy. The choreography, by Emma Rice and New Adventures’ Etta Murfitt, is slinky, funny, expressive and highly theatrical for such a confined space. Malcolm Rippeth’s exciting lighting design brings to life the Chagalls’ love for colour and vitality; and Simon Baker’s crisp and accurate sound design creates a web of magic with various effects including a distant telephone hum, and the nagging drip of water in a bucket, a strong juxtaposition of the sound of reality against the vision of fantasy.

TFLOV-prod4And at the heart of the show are two sensational performances from Marc Antolin and Daisy Maywood. I didn’t realise these two terrific actors were in this show until I glanced at the programme just before we went in. We’d seen Mr Antolin in the superb Taken at Midnight in Chichester a few years ago, and Ms Maywood was probably the best Bebe in A Chorus Line I’ve ever seen (and believe me, I’ve seen a lot of them!) TFLOV-prod8I already guessed we were going to be in for a treat, but I underestimated how much. Having done a little research on the Chagalls in order to write this review, I’m staggered by how accurately they portrayed their actual physical appearance – a technical masterpiece of hair and makeup, that’s for sure. They also have a fantastic chemistry together on stage that really enhances the love bond between the characters, which made some of the scenes truly emotional – there were plenty of instances of the old wetness in the eye during this show.

TFLOV-prod16Mr Antolin absolutely wowed me with his brilliant clowning skills, with perfect facial expressions, deft fancy footwork, and a fabulous pratfall. Ms Maywood is of course a brilliant singer and dancer, and invested the character with so much love and emotion; not only simply her overwhelming love for her husband but all the torments of those inner repressions when her needs are ignored, or when the evil world out there comes one step closer to threaten her.

TFLOV-prod20One of the achievements of this production was that it made me want to find out so much more about the Chagalls and their work; it really piqued my interest in a character that I knew little about – and that’s got to be a good thing. Primarily, though, it’s an elegant, quirky, loving portrayal of two people in a hostile world, finding a way to make the best life together. Absolutely brilliant. It’s near the end of its tour now, with just Cheltenham for the first week in May and the Spoleto Festival in South Carolina from 24 May to 10 June. Highly recommended!