If the last sixteen months have taught us anything, then it’s just how powerful small acts of random kindness can be. So, it feels appropriate that the first new musical to open in the West End following the shut-down is Amélie The Musical, which comes to the Criterion Theatre following hugely successful runs at The Watermill, The Other Palace and on tour.
Of course, not only is this musical backed by its own successful past, but also by a well-loved film and a Broadway production. Lovers of the movie version will be pleased to know that this West End premiere is more closely aligned to the film, than the stage musical which ran in the US.
Young Amélie Poulain, was almost born for the pandemic lifestyle, with an overly cautious Father, and neurotic Mother, she is deprived of most human interaction for the sake of her own health. When the adult Amélie, the role being reprised by Audrey Brisson, leaves home to work in a café in Montmartre, she finds it exceedingly difficult to interact with others.
But this isn’t a musical set in a pandemic, in fact it’s set very specifically in 1997, around the time of Princess Diana’s death, so Amélie must adapt to a normal life, and one which involves strangers. Inspired by the life of the Princess, Amélie uses little acts of kindness to help those around her, although remains painfully isolated herself.
Her generous spirit extends to friends in the café and strangers on the street, and in particular Nino, a young man who collects torn photographs for a scrapbook. Striking up a romance isn’t so easy for someone who doesn’t want to interact, so Amélie instead sets puzzles and riddles for Nino to solve.
Director Michael Fentiman has captured the whimsical nature of the film particularly well; Amélie lives in a world of imagination and that is recreated on stage with this magical quality to it, helped to some degree by the imaginative use of puppetry and props which aren’t always what they first seem.
Madelaine Girling’s two tier set remains in place throughout, but does manage to reveal a Parisian underground station, Amélie’s cosy apartment and a sex shop, to name but a few. The musical is set in 1997, but the whole look is of a somehow more familiar wartime European city. The Art Nouveau style of the design creates a wonderful feeling of nostalgia.
Craig Lucas’s book combined with music by Daniel Messé, who also provided lyrics alongside Nathan Tysen, feels like a fairy tale set alongside a folksy French score. The songs are delightfully playful, bouncing off the sometimes-dark humour and again creating that sense of whimsy. Music is provided by the talented group of actor musicians who make up the hard-working ensemble.
The second act, despite being the main thrust of the story, seems to lack the focus of the first, but we do get to see more of Chris Jared as Nino, and his superb vocals, which alongside Audrey Brisson’s outstanding performance makes for an alluring combination.
An utterly charming musical, Amélie is a welcome and refreshing addition to the West End. Beguiling staging, an uplifting story, and a versatile cast give us so much to devour and enjoy, a fantastic stage adaptation of a beloved film, that has stepped up a gear for its West End debut to ensure it is the musical du jour.