Romantics Anonymous is an amalgamation of all things good in theatre. A wonderful story well told in theatrical arts by outstanding practitioners of the craft.
Add a few ingredients
Bold, and brave and new,
Don’t you love how chocolate is
So unlike you?
Romantics Anonymous comes to the Sam Wanamaker Theatre in its most current form: the musical. It has been lovingly crafted by Emma Rice as an adaptation of the 2010 film version, Les Emotif Anonymes. The songs are written by composer Michael Kooman and lyricist Christopher Dimond.
The story is a romantic comedy set amongst the lusciousness of chocolate in the most romantic country of all – France. At its big and delicious heart is the story of love amongst the painfully shy, or Les Emotif Anonymes. Referring to the leading quote: What do you need to add to the person to step beyond their limits and become meltingly strong?
For those who love musical theatre, Romantics Anonymous is a connoisseur’s delight. It is delicate and whimsical and appealing to all the senses at once. The stuff of dreams – the dreams of Emma Rice and her creative team to be precise.
The story itself has a beautiful arc of energy that lifts and holds attention completely. The songs are woven into the story in such a way that the narrative is advanced and enhanced by their presence. Kooman says that ‘characters sing because they get to a place where they can’t speak anymore.’ Thus the play becomes musicalised.
The music has a French flavour blended with a contemporary music theatre sound. Kooman has admitted to being influenced by Satie and Debussy but also by listening to much of the café culture music of Paris: the piano accordion and Piaf.
Against the French tone of the music Lez Botherston has designed a look that reflects a subtle continental feel. In the intimate space of the Sam Wanamaker theatre, set is defined by pieces. In this production Botherston uses an array of neon lights, Gallic-looking furniture and costumes to create the pictures. The arches at the rear of the stage are well used to define space and traffic.
One of the greatest strengths of this production is the attention paid to detail. Chocolate is important from the beginning. The audience is given a piece of chocolate with firm instructions…in French… to keep it for ‘the magic moment.’
In developing a character for the stage actors prepare in many ways. For Romantics Anonymous the cast attended a chocolate making course, learning skills that lead actor Carly Bawden put to use in the opening segment.
Bawden plays Angelique, the master chocolatier who prefers to remain anonymous than bask in the glory of her talent. Bawden not only makes chocolates on stage, she produces a character who is warm and available despite being socially inept. Every note she sings and step she takes is a delight.
Playing Jean-Rene opposite Bawden is Dominic Marsh. Jean-Rene is a delightfully quirky character who battles his demons constantly. Marsh is vulnerable and winning in his portrayal.
The other seven members of this talented cast play numerous roles with elegance and skill.
In Jean-Rene’s chocolate factory the ensemble are hapless employees fighting for survival in their jobs. Joanna Riding shows wonderful comic timing in just the simple act of answering the phone. Riding shows her versatility in several roles but shines most as Angelique’s mother, with a fierce song and a brutally honest scene with Bawden.
Are we simply products of our early childhood upbringing? On that same theme, one of the demons that Jena-Rene must face is the memory of his father whose presence is physicalised by Philip Cox. Cox portrays this character without judgement, giving an honest statement of what was.
In the meetings of Les Emotif Anonymes, an hilarious version of an AA meeting for the socially hapless, each of the cast has an exquisite cameo appearance.
Gareth Snook gives a memorable performance at these meetings as Mumbler, a role in which Snook himself totally disappears. Snook remains very visible though in his role as Mercier, the flamboyant chocolate vendor who discovers the talents of Angelique. As Mercier, Snook is divine and as Madame Marini he outdoes himself. A major tour de force.
When a production gels as well as Romantics Anonymous, it is most often due to great leadership. In this case Emma Rice has not only directed a cohesive and intelligent piece of theatre, she had a major hand in creating the piece for the stage. Elements of her previous productions can be seen here, particularly Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and each is a welcome feature to be lauded.
Romantics Anonymous is simple storytelling at its best. It offers the audience opportunities to identify with characters and situations and reflect on life. It is entertaining and heartwarming.