In the spirit of Alcoholic Anonymous-style public confession (something Emma Rice’s wondrous new musical is structured around) I feel I must open this review with some admissions.
I don’t like romcoms.
I have a particular hardened scepticism towards the genre of movie romcom which Rice’s source material (Les Émotifs anonymes, a 2010 Belgian comedy about two anxious, but mutually smitten chocolatiers) belongs to. The genre of Francophone, nostalgia-saturated, low-stakes, high-whimsy, pastel-hued films of which Amelie is a less-twee-than-average example. The genre which cheerily effaces the past half century’s progress, when feminism punctured womens’ abilities to puff their hair up into elegant bouffants, or to assemble lilac outfits with matching hat, court shoes and gloves. The genre which uses all-white casts, in a childish retreat from the realities of present-day Europe.
I worry (appropriately) about how anxiety and clumsiness are used as ways to make female leads in romcoms artificially child-like, pure and vulnerable – even if they’re dressed like grown adults in twinsets and heels.
I worry about heteronormativity.
I really, really like this musical.
Happily, the name ‘Romantics Anonymous’ is misleading. Emma Rice has treated her source material with characteristic imaginative freedom, starting with the title. Because as this new musical’s chorus acknowledge, the ‘Émotifs’ used in the film’s original title isn’t a word with a straightforward English translation. It’s not quite romance – it’s more emotional rawness of the kind that makes you think of convoluted idioms, like ‘she wears her heart on her sleeve’ or ‘he’s highly strung’. Rice’s musical is nominally about two such people who gradually, blushingly fall in love, while turning a chocolate factory from a flop into a workshop of delicately-scented wonders. But it’s got a strong rib of self-awareness and irony that runs through it, holding the flimsy subject material in shape like spokes in an umbrella.
Angélique (Carly Bawden) is so painfully shy that she attends a weekly support group where an array of shaking, nervy, impulsive outcasts share their experiences. She’s also so painfully shy that despite the fact she’s a master chocolatier, she makes her wares in secret, letting everyone believe that a mysterious recluse is their creator. After her first boss passes away, she comes to work at the chocolate factory that Jean-René (Dominic Marsh) has recently inherited from his father, and which is struggling to sell its old-fashioned, un-sensual merchandise.
He’s a limp leaf of a man, propped up by daily sessions with a motivational tape (which, hilariously voiced by Lauren Samuels) adds gentle structure to the play by issuing increasingly impossible challenges) and by the ghost of his dead father who, like Hamlet’s Dad, is ever on hand to tie him to his past and offer terrible advice.
The story’s natural resolution is obvious from the musical’s opening minutes. She’s obviously going to fix his factory, they’re obviously going to end up together. But it’s the fillips and somersaults they perform on the way there that make it all so satisfying – there’s a whole circus of contorted admissions of affection, dramatic leaps from favour, and clownish mishaps that destroy the most innocuous of interactions.
Romantics Anonymous is stuffed with good old-fashioned slapstick, added new poignancy by the psychological depth underneath it. These two characters aren’t just lovable klutzes, they’re trembling, self-sabotaging neurotics who shatter a dream with every delicate object they drop – their mental illness are life-destroying, not adorable. The dinner date scene is a particular masterpiece. Emma Rice’s direction places the dinner table on one side of the stage. On the other is a fully realistic toilet cubicle, where Jean-René retreats to tremble in peace, and to change his sweat-soaked shirt for a fresh one that won’t see out the next course. His private pain is seen side-by-side with Angélique’s public humiliation, as she’s left agonisingly alone at her table at a snooty French restaurant, singular and sneered at.
This couple’s natural state is romantic deadlock, so the musical’s chorus become shepherds and spurs of the action. They perform French-accented songs (by Michael Kooman and Christopher Dimond) that aren’t hugely memorable, but are hugely charming, giving their shifting succession of outlandish characters room to showcase every last quirk. They’re sharp-witted, anticipating the audience’s complaints about the plot’s simplicity and predictability. And, quietly, they also expose and subvert the central trope of romantic comedy. Why are this blushing, uncharismatic young couple the centre of attention? Why not the redoubtable aproned women of the chocolate factory, or the mumbling guy at Angélique’s support group?
The answer that softly emerges is that it needs a village to bring a couple together. And what Emma Rice’s parting gift to Shakespeare’s Globe creates so wonderfully is the sense of community’s healing power, and about how love isn’t just a selfish, inward-turning bond between two people that reduces the rest of the world to a soft-focus, pastel blur. It’s a chorus.
Romantics Anonymous is on until 6 January 2018 at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. Click here for more details.