BWW Review: ROMANTICS ANONYMOUS, Bristol Old Vic
When Romantics Anonymous originally premiered at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in 2017, it received wonderful reviews and there was such a joyful buzz surrounding this show that I unfortunately didn't get to experience for myself.
How lucky, then, that the collaboration between Wise Children and Plush Theatricals has returned, this time to Bristol Old Vic before heading across the pond to Los Angeles and Washington D.C.
Adapted from the French Belgian film Les Émotifs Anonymes, we follow a gifted chocolatier named Angélique, who unwittingly finds herself helping Jean-René's floundering chocolate factory that he inherited from his traditionalist father. Angélique struggles with the spotlight, Jean-René struggles with debilitating shyness. They meet by chance and feel a spark - but can the two find the recipe for professional success, alongside their own happiness?
Given the themes of love and self-expression, it's easy to sense that the piece might strike many a chord with the audience. Christopher Dimond's lyrics have a simplicity and incredibly relatable quality, and are complemented by Michael Kooman's lush melodies - a heady mixture of sweet ballads and cheekier uptempo numbers.
It's a script full of humour, and it was an absolute joy to be in an audience so receptive - the auditorium rang with laughter as joke after joke came thick and fast. There were occasions - in particular, when a car journey morphs from physical comedy to a remote-control car - that felt like it was trying too hard to be funny, but overall there's a slick, effortless quality to proceedings.
Based on Lez Brotherston's original design, the stripped-back set encompasses the front of a building and balcony that changes into various locations thanks to Malcolm Rippeth's character-filled lighting: neon signs, subtle pink hues for the romantic moments, and a switch between warmer and colder tones depending on the mood of the scene. Props are sparse but take us to a restaurant, hotel room and an emotional support group, and Etta Murfitt's choreography fills the space with energy and personality.
Carly Bawden shines as Angélique, instantly endearing as she sings "chocolate holds the world in every bite, when it's just right". Marc Antolin is delightfully awkward as Jean-René, and the two share immediately palpable chemistry.
The rest of an immensely talented ensemble cast doubles, sometimes triple up in various roles, including Gareth Snook who provides absolutely hilarious, scene-stealing turns as Angelique's mentor Mercier, a mumbling member of the support group, and Madam Marini. Sandra Marvin is also excellent as straight-talking Magda, one of Jean-René's staff, Angelique's mother Brigitte and a dermatologist at the support group, Dr Maxim.
It's abundantly clear that they have a love for the material, and their commitment is astonishing - even pre-show as they distribute "magic" chocolate, and serenading in the bar at the interval!
From beginning to end, Romantics Anonymous proves a delightful hug of a show, chock-full of delicious wit and warmth. I suspect its recipe has matured since the original run, and will continue to delight as it travels stateside.
Photo Credit: Steve Tanner