REVIEW: ‘Amélie’, Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham

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Based on the five-time Oscar nominated film, ‘Amélie’ the Musical follows the story of an extraordinary young french woman who lives firmly in her own imagination.

As a child, Amélie is subject to the blunt and hopeless realism of her neurotic mother, and her germophobe father. The only physical interaction Amélie receives from her parents comes in the form of a monthly health check up, carried out by her father every 31 days. When he takes her hand, Amélie’s heart beats so quickly, he diagnoses her with a heart condition, referencing her fragility. 

After tragedy befalls Amélie’s mother, she determines to leave home, and takes a job in a cafe in Montmartre. When she finds a box of childhood treasures, Amélie sets out to return it to its owner. This inspires her to become an anonymous do-gooder, and she begins to help those around her, struggling to help herself, but never asking for anything in return. When there is a chance at love, Amélie must risk everything and lower her guard, allowing the mysterious Nino to meet her halfway.

Featuring a book by Craig Lucas, music by Daniel Messe and lyrics by Nathan Tysen and Daniel Messe, ‘Amélie’ is an enchantingly quirky production that crackles with wit and charm. 

Audrey Brisson is perfect as eccentric heroine Amélie. Capturing the detailed nuances and emotional complexities of the character, Brisson presents us with a young woman who, despite a subdued and solitary upbringing, is determined to chase after her dreams. Amélie is used to keeping to herself – though people like her, they do not know her. After work, rather than join her colleagues, she would go to her home and watch television alone, retreating further and further into her imagination, which acts almost as a protection from the potentially unpleasant and disappointing realities of a world her parents warned her of. 

Her mother often warned her not to get too close to anybody, and as a result, Amélie had not formed any deep and meaning attachments in her adult life. Not cold, simply detached, watching the world through her telescope from the safety and comfort of her home, Amélie must learn to lower her defences and let others in.

Brisson imbues the wide-eyed character with an endearing childish eagerness and romantic curiosity, the likes of which battles with occasional bouts of shyness that causes her to run from what she fears. Living in a world of her own imagining, Brisson invites us to join in Amélie’s imagination as we see the world through her eyes – a world full of wonder, beauty, hope and possibility, a world where dreams do come true.

Danny Mac is delightfully charming as love interest Nino. A mysterious stranger with more than a few quirks of his own, Nino spends his time visiting photo booths, and collecting unwanted and discarded photographs, placing them into a photo album which he keeps on his person. With an inquisitive mind, he wonders who the person in the photograph is, and wonders at the kind of life they have lived. There is a wonderful sense of intrigue to this character, a phantom-like figure that we know little about, yet wish to know more, a figure that appears intermittently, only to disappear. Though Nino and Amélie bump into each other several times, it would seem fate keeps pulling them apart. When the two are finally brought together, there is a breathtaking moment of silence and stillness – at which point one could here a pin drop – as the two share their love for one another.

Jez Unwin as Amélie’s troubled father Raphael has his own personal battles to overcome. After the death of his wife, he withdraws further into himself, dedicating all his time to maintaining and preserving a shrine he has built in his backyard, with even less time, care, and attention for his daughter. When Amélie entreats him to leave his yard, he is once more able to find happiness and with it, peace. Unwin doubles as Bretodeau, the Frenchman to whom Amélie returns the box of childhood treasures, which causes him to acknowledge how quickly time passes, and to determine to make the most of the time that is left. He makes a phone call to rekindle his relationship with a family he has gone so long without.

Kate Robson-Stuart, Faoileann Cunningham and Sophie Crawford are cafe workers Suzanne, Georgette and Gina respectively. Bringing a sparkling wit and fantastic feminine vibrancy to the cafe, the three women sing about their hilarious, yet not altogether successful, experiences with men, before demanding to know of Nino what his intentions with Amélie are.

Caolan McCarthy has great fun as the fabulously flamboyant Elton John, and Johnson Willis gives a touching performance as the brittle-boned Dufayel, whose words offer both comfort and truth to Amélie when she needs it most. 

The company as a whole are extraordinary, every member both presenting and acting the story as, onstage throughout, they transition between the role of live musician and character, the people of Paris, the city’s living, breathing, beating heart, from the commuters on its trains, to the customers at its cafes.

Creatively, the production is a masterpiece, a love letter to the idyll of an idealised France. Alive with a fantastical fanciful frenchness, there is a striking intimacy that finds its place in the artistry of the show’s beautiful sets, quick dialogue, clever songs and stylised choreography.

Puppetry is also used to great effect within the production, with a young Amélie presented in puppet form, whose movements are as lifelike and full of personality as Brisson’s character herself, and later a garden gnome is brought to life to hilarious effect. Expect some more outrageously surreal surprises along the way.

Like the seeds in a raspberry, ‘Amélie’ sows seeds of joy, bearing fruit that highlights the very best in humanity by championing our ability to show kindness, generosity, selflessness, and love, encouraging us to keep hoping, to keep imagining, and above all, to keep dreaming.

They say times are hard for the dreamers. With theatre such as this, it is made considerably easier. ‘Amélie’ gives us characters to believe in, and a musical to dream of. 

A box of treasures, a pitch-perfect Parisian production, if Gods were musicals, ‘Amélie’ would be the sap.

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