Significantly reworked from its Broadway incarnation, Michael Fentiman’s Amélie sticks closer to the tone of Jeunet and Laurant’s beloved 2001 movie, and the result is undeniably charming. An off-kilter fable about the fine line between retaining a sense of wonder and refusing to engage with reality, the production boasts a new score which adds a folky, distinctly Gallic flair to its wry and whimsical songbook.
Spending five weeks at Newbury’s Watermill Theatre before embarking on a UK tour, the show packs plenty of heart, and an impressive number of instruments, into the intimate space. Fentiman’s enthusiastic staging lends impetus and direction to a meandering plot that could easily feel aimless, while Tom Jackson Greaves’ choreography sees the performers surge into sweeping waltz steps and bursts of synchronised scurrying as they explore a fairytale Paris.
At times, the show embraces a welcome streak of surrealism. A mean-spirited grocer is menaced by a gang of anthropomorphic figs. A globetrotting garden gnome performs a quick-change routine while singing about the destinations he’s visited.
Madeleine Girling’s design draws on Jeunet’s visual style, with girders and glossy, lime-tinted brickwork saturated in soupy mustard light. Striking a balance between efficient and playful, the set features a rotating photo booth that doubles as a church confessional, and pianos that open up into tobacconist kiosks or, at one point, a display case of giant dildos. Meanwhile, Amélie watches the world unfold from the circular window of a cylindrical, magenta-painted hobbit house.
A strong ensemble of actor-musicians fill out the show’s cast of melancholy eccentrics, demonstrating adequately tuned French accents and some wonderfully expressive playing on accordion, piano and strings. Johnson Willis moves with a consummate delicacy at odds with the rough textures of his voice as brittle-boned, Renoir-obsessed shut in Dufayel. Jez Unwin manages to wring sympathy out of his role as Amélie’s neurotic, overprotective father, too afraid of emotion to grieve or get over his wife’s death.
At the heart of the story, Audrey Brisson makes a convincing, confident lead. Her Amélie displays just the right mix of quirky innocence and emotional illiteracy to convince as the kind of person who’d arrange an elaborate treasure hunt just to keep from having to have a conversation with someone she’s attracted to.
Beside her, Chris Jared is likeable as love-interest Nino, even if he has little to do beyond tantalisingly crossing her path in a series of metro stations. Though they barely interact, their awkward, amusing attempts to connect form the show’s second half and emotional centre. After all the show’s schmaltzy romanticism, their meeting is a moment of tentative, gentle, and transformative intimacy that’s doesn’t feel a bit sentimental.