Romantics Anonymous, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare’s Globe ★★★★★

Reviewed for Musical Theatre Review:

As she bows out of her truncated term as the artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe, Emma Rice’s legacy may well be remembered as bringing with it electric lighting and amplified sound.

What is more important, though, is the fun and heart that also infused her productions. Romantics Anonymous, the new musical headlining the venue’s winter season in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, distils everything that has been great about Rice’s tenure, and creates the most joyous of musicals in the process.

Based on the 2010 French/Belgian comedy Les Emotifs Anonymes, Rice has adapted the screenplay into a hilarious tale of two French chocolatiers whose mutual crippling shyness belies the obvious fact that they are perfect for one another.

As the central character, Carly Bawden’s Angelique is heartbreakingly hesitant as the chocolate maker whose work achieves fame as the product of a reclusive chocolate savant, but who herself insists on remaining anonymous because the stress of communicating in public makes her faint.

When her mentor and employer dies, she attempts to find work in the failing chocolate factory run by Dominic Marsh’s Jean-René – but due to their mutual inability to communicate effectively, the glossophobic Angelique is recruited as a salesperson.

The progression of the inevitable romantic story between Angelique and Jean-René would be bland were it not for the sparkling wit of the script, both in Rice’s book and the song lyrics by Christopher Dimond.

While his and composer Michael Kooman’s songs may not quite have the show-stopping brilliance of the great musicals, their allusions to French style and the relentless verbal badinage is perfectly attuned to the show as a whole.

The four- piece band, led by musical director Jim Henson, both convey the Gallic charm of the story and infuse the show with just the right amounts of levity and sadness. The intimacy of the Playhouse’s wooden structure also provides an acoustically perfect scenario for the music and singing, helping to accentuate the romanticism at work throughout.

Complementing the main duo are a supporting cast of seven actors who all help in elevating the sweetness and joy throughout.

Marc Antolin displays his impeccable comic timing, whether as a haughty competition judge or a disruptive factory worker. Joanna Riding brings a Northern warmth to factory supervisor Magda, while Gareth Snook has far too much fun as Angelique’s mentor Mercier and her later star customer, Madame Marini.

Etta Murfitt’s choreography blends in perfectly with proceedings, contributing to various scenarios, from an excruciatingly long dinner to the most frenetic car chase sequence that the Playhouse has ever seen, or will ever see, on stage.

The key with chocolate, the play tells us frequently, is that there must be enough bitterness to counteract the sweetness. In a show that is not afraid to be self-aware, it’s apparent that Rice is also talking about theatre as much as she is about chocolate.

There is no bitterness present in Romantics Anonymous to counteract its beautiful, romantic sweetness, though. That contrasting flavour is provided by the pathos and heartbreakingly familiar struggles of the awkward heroes.

That contrasting mix of flavours is also a metaphor for Rice’s tenure at the Globe, of course. Her insistence on giving the venue’s productions injections of light and sound are akin to the “twist” that Jean-René’s traditional chocolates need in order to appeal to modern tastes.

Whether as metaphor for her own theatrical tastes, as metaphor for our own lives, or just as a romantically beautiful comedy about awkward chocolate makers, one thing is not in doubt: Romantics Anonymous is a simply astonishing new work, and has been crafted to perfection.

Continues until January 6, 2018.

Production photograph: Steve Tanner.

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