Sylvain Chomet’s animated film Les Triplettes de Belleville earned plaudits a-plenty, including a couple of Oscar nominations, when it arrived on the big screen in 2003. Clever, inventive and quirkily retro, it was a far cry from the increasingly high tech, computer-generated cartoon fare coming out of Hollywood. In adapting it for the stage, Fellswoop Theatre preserve much of its original atmosphere, and it comes as no surprise to learn that Chomet himself was won over by the company’s take on his warm-hearted comic tale – or that it, too, picked up plaudits a-plenty during a run in Edinburgh last year.
It opens in the eponymous Belleville Rendezvous, a nightclub with a decidedly boho Brechtian feel. The young eight-strong cast’s in clownish white make-up and a live duo play jazz-folk with plenty of ‘Fever’-ish double bass and Francophile accordion (later we’ll get some Cocteau-esque percussive flurries on a typewriter and, for some reason, a kazoo). Live music and sound, in fact, are absolutely central: aside from one scene in French, which the bass-player helpfully translates, there’s hardly any dialogue, and instead there’s much pitching in from the ensemble to generate soundscapes and spot effects with bicycle wheels, suitcases and their own voices.
It’s on the visual and physical side, though, that Fellswoop demonstrate their ingenuity, and after a slightly hesitant, toe-tapping intro (the cast, it seems, were waiting for some latecomers to arrive), they deploy everything from mime, dance and physical comedy to puppetry, object manipulation and cross-dressing to tell the story, Poor Theatre style, of orphan Champion, his grandmother Madame Souza and their corpulent hound Bruno. That story, of course, takes in an E.T.-like fantasy trike ride into space, the Tour de France, a kidnapping and a sea crossing by pedalo, not to mention a daring raid to rescue Champion from the clutches of the Belleville mafia, a gun fight and a car chase – all of which are easy enough to portray in a big-screen cartoon, but are not so easy to put across on stage. They’re challenges, though, for which the company finds a whole series of inventive and playful solutions, with torches, more suitcases, more bicycle wheels and lots of energetic ensemble work all serving to convey those tricky action sequences. Memorable images abound: young Champion (a mournful-looking puppet) looking down on a tiny Earth; the jostling cyclists in the Tour de France; Madame Souza and Bruno washed up by the breakers on Belleville beach.
At times, perhaps, the pace seems a tad erratic – a potentially poignant moment, like Champion’s first night in his granny’s house, gets brushed over, or a scene drags a bit, (the aging Belleville ‘triplettes’ seem to take forever to cook granny a meal) – and there’s maybe one too many crowd scenes where the cast pull a fairly limited repertoire of shapes and expressions (the angry one, the cool one, the worried one etc). The momentum of the story and the sheer verve of the company carry the day, though, and the overall effect is charming and, well, rather sweet. If Fellswoop didn’t quite get the balance right with their Chekovian reinvention Most Drink in Secret, their take on Chomet’s story succeeds in finding a theatrical idiom that matches the original’s characteristic blend of humour, tenderness and melancholy.