Despite being an avid fan of the 2001 film Amélie, you may be surprised to hear I did not go into this performance with high expectations. This UK tour, arriving in Oxford at the New Theatre, is based upon a 2015 Broadway production, which – with the exception of starring lady Phillipa Soo (Hamilton, anyone?) – was widely panned by critics.Whatever doubts I held in my head, they are undoubtedly gone by the close of the show. This is a production with heart.
The main criticism of the original Broadway production was, surprisingly, that it didn’t sound Parisian enough – perhaps surprising for a show whose main selling point over here has been its quirky French charm. This is a change which has certainly been rectified in this production, and it’s all for the better. French accents abound, which, despite occasionally causing the speech to lose clarity, is undeniably an improvement. This is a world filled with the sense of Montmartre, a whimsical atmosphere which carries all the quirkiness of the original. And, while I dread to think how the orgasm scene might appear to a new audience, it’s good to see that its references have been kept, none of the plot watered-down for the sake of glitzy musical glam.
Some of the greatest improvements have come with the score. The opening number of the show – ‘The flight of the blue fly’ – sets up this dynamic beautifully, with a lone accordion player standing centre stage. Gradually, he is joined by other figures, and we see that these, too, are playing instruments on-stage – the characters become the orchestra, and their continual presence on the stage adds to the sense of street performance, each of the musicians themselves containing their own story.
The first half of the show sets up the exposition well – detailing each character’s tics and interconnections with summary verve – and a heart-warming act of goodwill provides one of the most touching moments of the show. Tragedy is lightly counterpoised with comedy, maintaining a careful balance. However, it is the second half in which the narrative really strides into its own, as the attention turns from the community the protagonist tries to help to Amélie herself, as she studiously avoids contact with the star-crossed Nico (Danny Mac, fresh from Strictly). The early-act ‘Halfway’ is a beautiful solo number, with Audrey Brisson appearing to play the piano live, while the eleventh-hour duet ‘Stay’ captures the show’s paradox beautifully – “Don’t come any closer but don’t move away” – with wonderful dual-layered staging capturing the tender moment to fantastic effect.
The directors have noted the difficulties of bringing Amélie to the stage: it is a narrative which defies musical convention, in which it is impossible to have your traditional ‘I want’ song as the protagonist, at least initially, doesn’t desire anything for herself; in which a large musical number is entirely out-of-keeping with the tone of the show. This doesn’t stop them from including a showstopping Act One number with an Elton John lookalike (don’t ask) and a Princess Diana daydream. Although this tune raises the roof, it’s in the quieter moments that the musical finds its true spirit.
The staging throughout is exceptional and inventive, with a lightshade transporting Amélie to her secluded cove and flashes of light. The young Amélie, previously portrayed by a child actress, is here replaced with a puppet, as is a surprisingly animated fish. The creative team must be commended for the fantastic set design which transports the audience from café to apartment to train, with all the streets of the city in-between. But aided by all of these elements, at its heart is a story of relentless optimism– and this is portrayed in such a touching, genuine manner, it is sure to stay with its audiences long after.