Je suis émotif

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I’d tell you to rush to book a ticket, but the run ended two days after I saw it, and that was two weeks ago. Oops. Romantics Anonymous is a tiny, perfect little gem of a musical. It has magic chocolate (no, really), a glorious score by Michael Kooman and Christopher Dimond, a witty, moving book and fabulously clever staging by Emma Rice, gorgeous performances, Lauren Samuels as a self-help tape with major attitude, and a radio-controlled model 2CV. It’s wonderful, flawless, utterly charming, and the perfect antidote to a crappy grey British January.

And it closed. Never mind. What did you miss? A lovely, tentative love story between a chocolatier who is so painfully shy that she faints when people look at her, and a chocolate factory owner so repressed that he spends half his life sitting on the floor of his office listening to self-help tapes with the blinds closed. It’s based on (and much better than) a French film called Les Emotifs Anonymes; the title comes from Angélique-the-chocolatier’s therapy group. It’s a romantic comedy, so of course on one level it’s absolutely predictable: you know just from looking at the poster that Angélique-the-chocolatier and Jean-René-the-factory-owner are going to end up together, and that whatever impediments to true happiness block their path along the way will be magically resolved by the finale. The journey, though, is so thoroughly delightful that it doesn’t matter if you can see each plot twist a mile away.

Carly Bawden and Dominic Marsh are sweet but never too sweet as Angélique and Jean-René; the show tells us more than once that the magical element in chocolate is the note of bitterness behind the sugar, and in both performances there’s a hint of deep unhappiness just beneath the surface that prevents the material’s inherent sweetness from ever becoming cloying. They both sing beautifully, too. Around them, the hardworking ensemble – they all play at least three roles – never put a foot wrong, with standout turns from Joanna Riding as a factory book-keeper, Angélique’s flinty, oversexed mother, and a therapist, and from Gareth Snook as the riotously funny just-escaped-from-an-Italian-opera confiseur Mme. Marini. The production, overall, gives you the full Emma Rice experience – there’s airborne acrobatics, neon, too many witty visual gracenotes to count, tremendous warmth, generous humour, and even a square of “magic chocolate” so that we can miraculously hear French characters as if they were speaking English. It could all so easily have been painfully twee – except, again, there’s always that note of bitterness, of real unhappiness, underneath. Kooman and Dimond’s score – unfortunately no list of musical numbers in the programme – is sublime; as an extra treat, if you’re in the lobby during the intermission you’ll hear Philip Cox as Jean-René’s overprotective father singing a very funny song about all the horrible things that could happen to you before you go back to your seat (don’t go into the courtyard, you might get struck by lightning). The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse imposes a certain aesthetic on the production, but Lez Brotherston’s gorgeous neon-and-venetian-blind set bridges the gap between the replica-Jacobean woodwork and the show’s contemporary setting with considerable flair. Romantics Anonymous is lovely to watch, to see, to listen to; as Angélique and Jean-René fall in love with each other, you can feel the audience falling in love with the show.

Which – on a final, rather bitter note to (again) undercut the sweetness – makes the machinations that brought about the rather public ending of the artistic relationship between Emma Rice and the Globe all the more baffling. Rice, by now, is an established director, not some obscure fringe figure. She’s developed her own aesthetic, her work with Kneehigh attracted a great deal of positive attention, and the Globe’s board presumably knew who she was and what she does when they hired her. To recruit an artistic director with a very individual, idiosyncratic theatrical aesthetic and then balk when she brings that aesthetic into her productions in your venue is beyond perverse, and sets an uncomfortable precedent for Michelle Terry, Rice’s successor. In terms of this particular production, too, it seems particularly strange: a new musical with a contemporary setting may not be precisely the kind of show the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse was built to house (the bum-breaking, backless seats suggest it wasn’t built for anything longer than about forty minutes, but that’s another gripe for another time), but at the performance I saw there was a more or less full house, and people left the theatre, to quote the finale, ‘dancing on air’. This show makes people happy; it also, I imagine, brought quite a few new patrons into the venue for the first time, which of course should make it easier to bring them back to see other productions in future. I don’t see any downside – but presumably this kind of work wasn’t what the Globe’s board wanted. As I said, baffling.

As for the show itself – can somebody please make a cast recording? Pretty please?


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“You’ve just crossed over into…”

twilight zone

Eight episodes of a TV show cut into bits and glued into a theatrical collage by the playwright who brought us Mr. Burns. An assortment of aliens, murderers, childhood traumas, a portal into another dimension, possible nuclear annihilation, plastic surgery, a ventriloquist’s dummy, space exploration, suspended animation, insomnia, a seductive singing cat-woman, all thrown together on the Almeida‘s not-especially-large stage. It’s one of those shows that has the potential, on paper, to be either brilliant or catastrophically bad.

Fortunately the result is closer to the former, although it’s not an unqualified success. Under Richard Jones’s witty, endlessly inventive direction, the terrific cast hit exactly the right just-arch-enough tone; they don’t quite wink at the material, but they don’t play it entirely straight either. Washburn does a very clever job of dismantling eight separate stories and reassembling them into a two-act montage; the stories she chooses are mostly about fear, paranoia, and memory, and those themes certainly carry at least as much resonance today as they would have when the series originally aired, but she and Jones preserve the wide-eyed, deadpan playfulness of her source material. There’s a terrific infinite-space set by Paul Steinberg, unimpeachable costumes and lighting by (respectively) Nicky Gillibrand and Mimi Jordan Sherin, and Sarah Angliss’s score is exactly right – sometimes lush, often unsettling, and a persuasive homage to the music from the TV show. The pace never flags, the production looks and sounds great, the show is sometimes very funny and it delivers a couple of real jolts, and Jones’s direction throughout is masterful. It’s thoroughly entertaining.

Or rather, it’s thoroughly entertaining until the last five minutes, when Washburn brings on a narrator – John Marquez, who (like everyone else in the cast) plays several other roles – in the persona of Rod Serling, the creator of the original TV series, to tie everything together and underline the present-day relevance of the mind-bending period-pieces we’ve just seen. It isn’t the actor’s fault, but this closing monologue just doesn’t work; the show suddenly becomes static and didactic, and seems to grind to a halt. It’s not a fatal blow, but it does leave you walking out of the theatre wondering if you’ve just spent two hours watching Eight Plots in Search of a Point.

If you’re looking for something with an overall arc, then, rather than what amounts to a series of sketches, you may well walk away disappointed. The show clearly wants to use a pop culture artifact as a jumping-off point to explore something more complex, and it sometimes succeeds; it’s probably best, though, to approach it as a theatrical equivalent of a fairground ride. It really is great fun; it could and should have been more than that, but it delivers more than enough entertainment to make it worth the cost of the ticket. And if you find yourself taking an inner journey during that final monologue, then… well, maybe your next stop really is the Twilight Zone.