Theatre Review: Amelie is a surreal mix of French eccentricity and puppets

Turning successful movies into stage shows is very much in vogue.

The award-winning screenwriter Craig Lucas has done just that with his musical version of the 2001 French film Amelie.

The director Mike Fentiman confesses it was a” choice born from insanity” and that it was the apparent impossibility of staging the film which attracted him.

Despite this challenge, Lucas and Fentiman have pulled together a successful theatrical piece. True to the whimsy, the quirkiness, and the surrealism of the original.

The French movie industry is unique. No other country has so successfully survived the Hollywood onslaught, and French directors churn out hundreds of movies each year.

Paris has the highest density of cinemas in the world, with audiences watching hundreds of domestically produced high-brow films.

For this very reason, few of them go on to succeed outside France, with the United States proving a particularly tough market to crack.

Amelie released in 2001, is the one exception to this, and to date remains the highest grossing French film in the United States.

This is how the bizarre story of Amelie came to the attention of Craig Lucas, the Broadway genius.

He has rather an unusual backstory himself (he was found in an abandoned car in Atlanta and brought up by an adoptive couple – one a painter, the other an FBI agent).

Perhaps this is why the quirky tale of Amelie, a sort of French Fleabag, attracted him.

In the movie version, Amelie was played by the wonderful Audrey Tatou, and she is a hard act to follow. However, French-Canadian actress Audrey Brisson does it well on stage.

Amelie at The Other Palace until February 1

Amelie, a shy waitress in a café in Paris, “lives quietly in the world, but loudly in her mind.”

We see her childhood in the suburbs charmingly portrayed with a puppet (yes, a puppet) worked by the talented Oliver Grant.

She grows up quickly when her mother is killed leaving Notre Dame by a suicidal Canadian tourist jumping off the roof.

This is the point ‘newcomers’ realize this is no ordinary story.

Amelie’s father Raphael (an excellent Jez Unwin) bizarrely pours his wife’s ashes into a garden gnome, and stops leaving the house.

Unsurprisingly, Amelie can’t wait to escape to a café in Paris, though her life there is lonely and meaningless.

It’s a pretty weird plot, if true to the original movie. And you have to be prepared for the parade of eccentric characters Amelie meets.

These include a sinister Johnson Willis playing a man ‘with bones like glass,’ Josh Sneesby as an accordion-playing blind beggar, and Samuel Morgan-Grahame as a controlling plumber.

The love interest for Amelie is provided by the equally eccentric Nino (Chris Jared). They all enjoy their romp with ’allo ‘allo accents, and burst into song about anything, and everything.

The score does not have a lot of memorable hits, although there is a wonderfully over the top impersonation of Elton John at Princess Diana’s funeral by Caolan McCarthy at the end of Act One.

Otherwise, the strongest musical moment is provided by the supporting ladies (Emma Jane Morton, Kate Robson-Stuart, Sophie Crawford, Rachel Dawson and Faoileann Cunnigham) when they come together to bemoan their lot.

It certainly helps if you know the original movie, and if you love its bizarreness, and dark sense of humour, then you will love this show.

There are some wonderfully captured moments – perhaps especially when the garden gnome embarks on a tour of the world sending Raphael postcards.

The puppets by Dik Downey, and Madeleine Girling’s stylish set, are first class.

A surreal evening in the theatre which will mean most to fans of the original movie.

Amelie is at The Other Palace until February 1.
Call box office on 0207 087 7900.

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