Criterion Theatre, London – until 25 September 2021
It could hardly be calculated more finely to fulfil every post-lockdown need: a cast of 16 nimble actor-musician-singers visibly high on the joy of performing again (Audrey Brisson concludes the evening by thanking our scattered selves for coming, and the front of house and management for “keeping the faith”). Add a fabulously romantic Paris metro-and-cafe set to comfort us for lack of travel, and an almost too-sweetly engaging heroine in an optimistic, yet totally barmy, story of eccentric good deeds with a vaguely naughty hinterland.
I have to admit I hated the film – apparently France’s most successful ever – because its fearful winsomeness; Amelie’s desire to emulate Diana after her sad sudden death and be like her a universal “godmother to the unloved” left me callously cold, much in the manner of the current Sussex claim to be saving the world by being performatively, weaponisedly “compassionate”.
Yet the music, the big choruses and the goodnatured showbiz of elegant ensemble scene-changes in Michael Fentiman’s production somehow make the tale of the sweet-natured waitress (who interferes in everyone’s life while blind to her own needs) genuinely work. In the deep cool of the Criterion, with unwontedly good legroom and your ice cream (for now) brought to your seat in the interval, it is possible to relax into this unbelievable nonsense and the world of Madeleine Girling’s nostalgically cunning design.
Much is owed to Brisson too: big-eyed and tiny-framed, charming despite the character’s unfashionable frumpy skirt and boots and flick-up bobbed hair, I fell for her pretty fast, especially when she clambered over the pianos like a child and then elegantly flew ten feet up to her tiny bedsit behind the station clock, with a one-hand grip on the fringed lampshade. A sort of fairy, which I suppose is the point.
But credit also to the ensemble, and to Chris Jared as the weird photobooth-collector she admires, whose stolid bearded presence is a pleasant counterweight to Amelie’s feyness. They make us wait about two minutes for the final kiss even when he’s joined her behind the clock, and the young around me were sighing into their masks: it is, after all, the story of a young working woman living alone and feeling isolated (yet benevolent) and it will touch many frayed Covid-era nerves.
And yes, the lollipop moments are a joy. The first puppet, toddler Amelie being lectured on Zeno’s paradox (this,remember, is based on a French arty-pop film) is good, but the giant horror-movie walking figs and the hedonistic globetrotting enormous garden gnome are even better. So is the fantasy, epically unhealthy but somehow irresistible, in which Amelie dreams that she is being memorialized like Diana. The Elton John pastiche alone is worth the night out. So yes, I succumbed. Still never watching the film again though.
Box office : Criterion-theatre.co.Uk. to 25 sept