As the house lights dim, the audience is invited to take a small square of chocolate each – an amuse bouche to sweeten the tongue – and a magic trick, translating the French on stage into English.
Emma Rice’s production, first seen at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in 2017, whisks us into a world of Francophone whimsy, replete with berets, artisanal chocolatiers, and – bien sûr – romance.
But the romance here doesn’t come with Parisian effortlessness. The title is something of a mistranslation: our leads, a reclusive genius chocolate maker named Angélique (Carly Bawden) and Jean-René (Marc Antolin), the curt, socially inept owner of an out-of-business chocolate factory, are not so much romantics, but émotifs ridden with fear, anxiety and shyness.
Their presentation is cute, but the degree of their emotional conditions suggests serious mental illness. Angélique attends the titular support group of awkward nerds and mumbling misfits to help her get through the day.
It’s a clever move to turn a story about two people paralysed by neurosis into a musical, a form which requires them to sing through their emotions every step of the way; what they can’t share with each other brims over in front of an audience. And if the songs by Michael Kooman and Christopher Dimond lack true memorability, they are nonetheless charming and unctuously arranged.
It’s bitterness, says Angélique, that elevates chocolate above other sweets and fancies. In Romantics Anonymous, Rice has confected a bar of dairy milk – inoffensively sweet, tangy notes smoothed out – but ever so moreish.