In a traditionally quiet month for theatre, Amélie arrives at Manchester Opera House. The acclaimed film starring Audrey Tautou is one of the most successful French language films of all time, and Hartshorn-Hook’s musical retelling is every bit as quirky and charming as the original. As one of the songs (directly quoting the film) proclaims, ‘times are hard for dreamers,’ which certainly rings true in 2019; perhaps it’s the current political, social and environmental realities of our world that make the invitation to immerse ourselves in a whimsical, romantic Paris so irresistible.
The set, designed by Madeleine Girling, is an instant wow. Based on the art nouveau métro stations seen in Montmartre, the main structure is comprised of pale green, riveted iron arches and pillars. Embedded within this are key elements to the story: a photobooth, and a large station clock that opens to reveal Amélie’s tiny apartment bedroom.
Audrey Brisson is absolutely captivating in the lead role – she has a sweet and unshowy singing voice, and nails the comical facial expressions and slightly awkward, robotic physicality of the heroine. She also has the bonus of being French-Canadian, meaning that her accent is genuine; some of the other cast members’ accents are unfortunately less convincing, particularly when singing.
Although the production doesn’t make use of Yann Tiersen’s beautiful film soundtrack, it has the same musical roots. Waltzes, accordion and piano all feature amongst a large cast of instruments, coupled with folky, harmonised vocals. The music is played live by the cast of actor musicians, who move constantly round the stage, simultaneously playing multiple roles and narrating the action. The space is incredibly busy, sometimes chaotic, and it takes some time to adjust to the number of bodies and to know what is the focus of the action.
This is not a cheesy musical. It preserves the surreal, sometimes dark humour of the film – from the nature of Amélie’s mother’s death, to the heroine’s memorable musing about the number of orgasms happening in Paris – and actually goes a step further. A daydream about her own death whilst watching TV coverage of Princess Diana’s funeral leads to the full-blown Elton John parody number, ‘Goodbye, Amélie,’ with Caolan McCarthy giving an excellent imitation of the singer, complete with giant sparkling glasses and angel wings. Human figs appearing to terrorise the grocer Collignon are a jarring step too far though – as is the singing garden gnome.
One change to the story that works really well is the interrogation of Nino by Amélie’s friends and co-workers. The fact that they are looking out for their friend, ultimately giving the final push to help unite the lovers, is fitting recompense for all of her help. This scene also creates the opportunity for arguably the best line of song in the whole show (‘love is just another diagnosis, like bacterial vaginosis’).
My only other complaint is that the show is oddly paced – a huge amount of detail about the cast of characters is thrown out to the audience in both narration and song from the off, but this slows as the love story becomes the main focus. The various minor character arcs end up rushed, wrapped up all too conveniently in one scene, but the ending is so satisfyingly romantic it’s easy to forgive. Overall Amélie is an enjoyable show, full of romance, humour and quirky French charm – perfect dreaming fodder.