Emma Rice is an old-fashioned romantic – no doubt about it. When she brought “Brief Encounter” to Broadway back in 2010, the whole stage seemed to swoon, as lovers were knocked sideways and swept off their feet. With the company Kneehigh, she turned “Tristan and Yseult” into a tale of two people pulled together like planets.
To both stories though, Rice added the opposite: those left behind by love. In “Brief Encounter,” the station staff remained earthbound and unmoved, while “Tristan and Yseult” were watched by a chorus of The Unloved, a flock of bespectacled, anorak-wearing oddballs – trainspotters of the heart.
Rice’s latest project “Romantics Anonymous,” entwines those two elements with soaring success. A musical adaptation of Jean-Pierre Améris’ piquant French-Belgian rom-com “Les Emotifs Anonymes” (2010), the show is a grand romance between the unlikeliest of lovers, two sweethearts wracked by social anxiety. Factory owner Jean-René (Dominic Marsh) sits in his office, plugged into self-help tapes, while Angelique (Carly Bawden), a master chocolatier, joins a support group for the out-of-sorts, Les Emotifs Anonymes.
That phrase isn’t entirely translatable – Romantics Anonymous isn’t quite right. You might call them The Overwhelmed or The Insecure, all cowed by the world. One sits entirely tucked into her clothing: knees in her jumper, hands up her sleeves. Another, a crisscross of knitwear with plastered-up specs, taps away on his laptop avoiding eye contact. A third is a bobble-hatted, mitten-wearing mumbler. “Hello,” each whisper by way of introduction, “Je suis emotif.”
Améris’ story ties two feelgood formulas together – timid lovers coming together and shy sorts emerging from their shells. Angelique’s too shy to take credit for her talent, while Jean-René’s anxious inactivity is ruining his business. In finding each other, bit by bit, they prove the solutions to both of their problems.
The story’s so surefire, it’s very nearly too much, so sugarly it almost tips into sickly sweet. But with a book and direction by Rice, the ever-playful, tongue-in-cheek style just about sets. As Bawden and Marsh go through a string of near-misses, you find yourself urging the hapless lovers together. As they get closer, we pretty much melt. This is a real heartburst of a show.
As ever, Rice counterbalances that with clowning. A chorus of Bretagne-striped beret wearers with “theek Franche ac-cents,” playing Les Emotifs and factory floor workers alike, surround the pair, propping up the set pieces of Michael Kooman and Christopher Dimond’s nimble, cabaret-style score. Musically, their piano and clarinet orchestrations (with glockenspiels for good measure) catch the continental tone of Améris’ original, combining lush romance with light whimsy, as does Lez Brotherston’s design of candyish costumes and bright neon signs.
Tucked inside all this, there’s a survey of speech impediments. A study of shyness, Romantics Anonymous examines the inability to speak up. Bawden clamps her lips shut as Angelique, while Marsh’s Jean-Rene is permanently tongue-tied. She brings cue cards to their first date, only for him to flee to the toilet to change through a stash of sweat-sodden shirts.
The theme winds its way through Rice’s book, from the ineffable pleasure of chocolate – a taste that defies description – to the support groups that defeat fears by voicing them out loud. Not for nothing does Gareth Snook’s mumbler steal scene after scene. Grief, too, lurks in the background: a private, inexpressible pain that links the two leads.
This is what makes Améris’ film into a musical. Song steps in when speech falls short. Music does what words cannot. Kooman score and Dimond’s lyrics soar to emotional heights, with Joanna Riding’s floor manager belting out her boss’s secret: “He’s in love! He’s in love!” A string of characterful cameos from Marc Antolin and Natasha Jayetileke offset the flush of feeling, but there’s no denying that this one’s a real treat.
London Theater Review: Emma Rice’s “Romantics Anonymous”
Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare’s Globe, London; 320 seats; £62 ($81) top. Opened, reviewed, Sept. 27, 2017. Running time: 2 HOURS, 20 MIN.
A Radio Mouse Entertainment production of a musical in two acts with book by Emma Rice, music by Michael Kooman and lyrics by Christopher Dimond and based on a film by Jean-Pierre Améris and Philippe Blasband.
Directed by Emma Rice, Set design, Lez Brotherston; musical supervision, Nigel Lilley; choreographer, Etta Murfitt; orchestrator, Simon Hale; lighing, Malcolm Rippeth; sound, Simon Baker.
Marc Antolin, Carly Bawden, Philip Cox, Joe Evans, Natasha Jayetileke, Dominic Marsh, Joanna Riding, Lauren Samuels, Gareth Snook.