This soft-centred confection about a pair of shy chocolate makers, at the Bristol Old Vic, brings some Gallic warmth to long winter nights
Cripplingly shy Angelique (Carly Bawden) makes sensational chocolates, pouring into them all the feeling she dare not express in her life. Jean-René (Marc Antolin) runs a chocolate factory that is at a low that matches his self-esteem. It’s heart-breakingly clear that they belong together, but how can that be when neither has the nerve to reach out?
A musical adaptation of French-Belgian 2010 film Les Émotifs Anonymes, Romantics Anonymous is a revival of director Emma Rice’s Globe swansong of 2017. Packed with bittersweet charm, it’s clear to see the show deserved another life.
The opening number is a little saccharine, bringing concerns that this will be too sweet-toothed, but it soon seduces with its sheer open-heartedness. The thing about chocolate is the bitterness, we’re told, and sure enough we’re at that place where the gentle sweetness of the world meets the pain of a life lived in fear.
Angelique attends help group Émotifs Anonymes, where a group of misfits with various tics share their stories. It’s a glimpse into a world of struggling mental health, but done with humour and a lightness of touch that infuses the whole production. The witty choreography (by Etta Murfitt, associate of Mathew Bourne’s New Adventures) and inventive staging add that distinctive air we expect of Rice. The set conjures a cosy world of vintage signs and twinkling lights, backed up by the pleasing tunes of the live band – its a space as comforting as chocolate from which to look at the things that scare us.
It’s a tale of bravery, of taking a risk to break the mould. Jean-René is haunted by the presence of his dead father whose mantra “if you don’t do anything, nothing can go wrong” must be shaken off if his life is to take off. Strangely, producing a show of such mild and delicate tenderness feels like a mould-breaker, as Loizeau the chocolate judge says of Angelique’s entry, it’s “so shy it becomes bold, so fragile it becomes strong”.
One of the joys of the Old Vic is that the action doesn’t always take place just on the stage. No spoilers here, just saying turn up in good time, and make sure to visit the bar area during the interval….
The nine-strong multi-tasking cast are all excellent singers, dancers and comedians, taking us with humour and romance into a world that feels like an old French film. A warm hug in an anxious world – perhaps it’s just what is needed in these dark days.
Romantics Anonymous is on at the Bristol Old Vic until Sat 1 Feb.
Bristol Old Vic, King Street, Bristol BS1 4ED. Box office 0117 9877877. bristololdvic.org.uk
Words Rosie Meachin. Photos Steve Tanner