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Emma Rice's musical is a sweet treat for bitter times


Emma Rice's acclaimed Romantics Anonymous was supposed to be embarking on a US tour in March, which was cancelled due to the pandemic. Instead, Wise Children have created a 'digital tour', in which the musical is performed live at the Bristol Old Vic from 22-26 September and streamed both internationally and across the UK, with each night presented in partnership with a different group of theatres. Finally, on 27 September, the show will be performed to a socially distanced audience at the Bristol Old Vic.

Watching the performance through a screen did not detract from its magic. All you need is chocolate to accompany you, and you'll immediately feel indulged in the musical's deliciously romantic world. This is a production that is wonderfully joyous and whimsical - the perfect relief from the mounting fears of a second wave of Coronavirus. Rice has cleverly adapted the show to the current climate, and while it has a few tongue-in-cheek references to hand sanitiser and digital theatre, it remains the perfect piece of escapism.

Based on the 2010 film Les Émotifs Anonymes, Romantics Anonymous charts the painfully frustrating yet simultaneously hilarious love affair between Angélique (Carly Bawden) and Jean-René (Marc Antolin), two people united by their love of chocolate and their crippling social anxiety. When Jean-René's chocolate factory is about to go bust, Angélique (chocolatier and recluse) serendipitously comes to his rescue.

Bawden is perfect as the "exceedingly odd" and delicately kind Angélique; her vocals are particularly strong, with flawless definition. Antolin's Jean-René evokes Louis Theroux on steroids. He is chronically awkward and cannot touch another person, let alone a woman. Antolin brings much of the brilliant comedy to the piece, as Jean-René regularly practises self-help tapes in his office, chanting mantras and relaxing with yoga poses.

While the piece is magical and escapist, it also feels somewhat topical. Both Angélique and Jean-René describe themselves as "émotifs", a euphemistic word for anxious. Angélique attends a support group called "Les Émotifs Anonymes", in which the attendees confess their various 'emotional' issues. Rice deals with these scenes in a comedic way, yet there is also a more serious undertone, as it is clear that the members of the group all struggle with their mental health.

With the growing awareness around mental health issues, and also the effect of the pandemic on people's mental health around the world, the piece felt strangely relevant. Additionally, while the issue of fear around physical touch and socialising is part of the comedy of the production, it also resonates with the growing societal anxiety about how to communicate in a Covid-ridden world.

Characteristic of Rice's work, the ensemble is at the heart of this production. The piece does not rely on an extravagant set or a wealth of props - instead, the ensemble of nine create the world of the play using multiple costume changes and artful choreography. They are an extension of Lez Brotherston's Frenchified, Moulin Rouge-style set design. Particularly comic moments include the use of mime and sound effects to indicate the closing of the door to Jean-René's office, and the ensemble's formation of a car that chases Angelique around the stage.

Romantics Anonymous proves that the magic of theatre is not lost through a screen, and also reminds us of the need to keep the magic of the industry alive in these difficult times. After Rice addresses the camera at the beginning of the livestream, the camera pans around the empty Bristol Old Vic, showing posters with the words "Freelancers Make Theatre". While the play is the perfect escape from the gloom of the pandemic, it also spotlights the urgent need to rescue the arts industry.

Romantics Anonymous is available to stream on 26 September and will be performed live at Bristol Old Vic on 27 September.

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From This Author Maya Bowles