This oddball magical realist French musical receives a genuinely enchanting London premiere
If ‘Amelie’ gave you a toothache, this ridiculously sweet French magical realist story might make your gnashers more rotten than a ‘Les Misérables’ extra’s. Michel Legrand’s musical tells the story of a put-upon office clerk in post-war Paree who mysteriously gains the power to walk through walls, then sacrifices everything to woo the girl of his dreams. And unlike fellow French import ‘Les Mis’, its Broadway run was a flop by anyone’s standards (it lasted two weeks, barely longer than your average macaron). Still, in Charing Cross Theatre’s pared-down and wonderfully sung revival, it casts its own kind of spell.
The main attraction here is Legrand’s score, which brims over with joyfully old-school tunes: there are music box tinkly piano-led dance numbers, percussive comedy songs punctuated by the click of office typewriters, and some utterly gorgeous ballads, beautifully and emotively rendered by its long-suffering heroine Anna O’Byrne. Unfortunately, her character, Isabelle, isn’t as nuanced as the tunes she sings: she’s written as a generic songbird in a gilded cage, put upon by her much older husband. Meanwhile, hardworking nobody of a clerk Dusoleil (Gary Tushaw) steams up his round spectacles lusting after her, and uses his magic powers to become a kind of Robin Hood man-of-the-people who breaks the rigid rules of Parisian society, aided and hampered by a cast of stock characters: the whore-with-a-heart, the truncheon-wielding gendarmes, the pedantic boss, the buttoned-up office virgin.
Luckily, Jeremy Sams’s translations of the original French lyrics are witty and knowing enough to undercut the cliches, and the book offers the odd fascinating hint of the distinct atmosphere of 1950 Paris, with its material deprivations, rising socialist feeling and post-war retributions against collaborators. And Hannah Chissick’s breezy traverse staging is full of joyfully quirky (if not always wholly original) flourishes: the cast sing from under light-up umbrellas, create walls out of battered suitcases, and glide across the intimate space on bicycles.
‘Amour’ isn’t a musical that leaves you with much to chew on, with only the unexpected bittersweet ending complicating its joyfully fluffy feel. But although I can see how it would fall flat on Broadway, its Gallic charms work wonders in this intimate space.