Romantics Anonymous

Book by Emma Rice, lyrics by Christopher Dimond, music by Michael Kooman
Wise Children, Bristol Old Vic and Plush Theatricals
Bristol Old Vic

Carly Bawden (Angelique) & Marc Antolin (Jean-Rene) Credit: Steve Tanner
Carly Bawden (Angelique) & Marc Antolin (Jean-Rene) Credit: Steve Tanner
Carly Bawden (Angelique) Credit: Steve Tanner
Carly Bawden (Angelique) Credit: Steve Tanner
Me'sha Bryan, Carly Bawden (Angelique) & Sandra Marvin Credit: Steve Tanner

Emma Rice's latest production for her Wise Children company is a revival of her new musical based on a ten-year-old French film that was originally produced for Shakespeare's Globe in 2017, but any plans for touring the show were scuppered by the coronavirus lockdown.

This, therefore, is a virtual tour, where you can book with your local theatre where you might have seen the show on certain dates to see a live-streamed performance from the stage of the Bristol Old Vic.

The liveness of it was proved at the reviewed performance when, after the countdown over the revolving RKO-like Wise Children logo (with a reminder that "you'll need chocolate but don't eat it just yet"—advance notice would have been nice but we managed to find some in the house) had dropped to zero, there was another half hour of 'technical difficulties' before a flustered Emma Rice came on screen to apologise, pay tribute to her technicians and introduce the show. Then all was well for an hour, other than the odd blip, before the gremlins crept back in, so the spectacular act I finale was some blurry figures dancing in silence and the opening of act II required some guesswork on the plot, but then it was fine to the end.

The story focusses on Angélique (Carly Bawden), who is a brilliant chocolate maker who wows the judges at the chocolate festival in Lyon but is so cripplingly shy that she faints whenever anyone speaks to her. She is taken on by chocolate maker Mercier (Gareth Snook) on the condition that she remains anonymous and Mercier's chocolates become famous on the strength of her skills, but Mercier dies. She joins another chocolate factory run by socially awkward Jean-René (Marc Antolin) which is in danger of going bankrupt because no one wants its 'traditional' recipe chocolate any more. Angélique has to decide whether to let the company go bust or risk revealing her identity as the genius behind Mercier's chocolates.

Alongside this, there is a pretty traditional romantic comedy in which you know the two awkward lead characters are going to end up together after overcoming a lot of obstacles and reluctance to commit. The Hollywood romcom formula requires that there is a point about three-quarters of the way through where everything seems lost and the relationship is doomed, but here there are several moments like this at this point, one after the other, which makes the ending feel rather drawn out.

The songs are also very traditional 'musical theatre' numbers, with very well-crafted lyrics and melodies from Dimond and Kooman that fit well with Rice's script. There isn't a great deal of substance to the story or characters, but some depth is added by the brief appearance of Angélique's overbearing mother and the ghost of Jean-René's tradition-obsessed father, plus the confessions at the "Émotifs Anonymes" support group attended by Angélique and, eventually, by Jean-René as well.

It does, however, have the joyful life and creativity in its staging that we expect from Rice as well as her usual ensemble approach to storytelling. Overall, it's certainly an enjoyable way to spend two and a quarter hours—and it's all live, mistakes and technical problems and all, so it provides more of a taste of what we've been missing for six months than the myriad archive recordings on YouTube.

Reviewer: David Chadderton