REVIEW: Amélie, Criterion Theatre

The government may have just put the brakes on the full reopening of theatres but there are still some fantastic productions open with social distancing in place right now. And, more than ever, these shows need the support of audiences to keep them running at reduced capacity. One of those shows is the West End production of Amélie, the 2019 Watermill Theatre production which has recently opened at The Criterion Theatre in Piccadilly. You may well have seen the show’s producer, Louis Hartshorn, speaking on BBC news earlier this week about the challenges posed by keeping musicals open in light of the extended restrictions on audience numbers. We saw Amélie, last week and would wholeheartedly recommend it to everyone who is comfortable heading indoors to see a show right now. Not only will you be supporting an industry which is on its knees, but you will also have a bloody good evening! And you may even find yourself a new favourite show.

Adapted from the 2001 Oscar-nominated film of the same name, Amélie is an actor-musician production about a young French woman who, starved of human connection as a child, finds it easier to live in her own whimsical world than form meaningful relationships with those around her. Having never seen the film, we went in with no particular expectations other than having heard good word of mouth and having a very general sense that it was probably going to be a bit quirky and probably rather French. And it was all of that and more.

It’s a delight of a musical which boasts an outrageously talented cast of actor-musicians, a charming score and a whole host of surprises. We’re not sure how closely the book follows the plot of the original source material but we’re pretty sure that even those who know the film back to front will not be anticipating some of the more surreal moments. We don’t want to say too much about it for fear of spoiling things but there are some really entertaining moments that seem to come out of nowhere and will have the audience crying with laughter.

The view from our seats at the front of the stalls

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a show which is about being a bit different, it’s quite difficult to directly compare it to anything we have seen before, although the folk music did mean it had a bit of a Once feel to it in places. The quirky nature of the story and use of puppetry also reminded us a little of The Grinning Man and another actor-musician show, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, while certain scenes felt reminiscent of The Book of Mormon’s “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream”. The use of actor musicians works really well, with the instruments fully integrated into the performance rather than in a gimmicky or tokenistic way.

French-Canadian actor Audrey Brisson is a delight as Amélie. Although we had no preconceptions as to how the role should be performed, she felt perfect for the part, showcasing not only strong acting and singing skills but also playing the piano and giving just a hint of her background as a performer in Cirque du Soleil. And as if that wasn’t enough, she also casually plays the cello at the curtain call, just because she can! We also loved the set and staging, particularly the location and novel means of entering Amelie’s apartment.

It’s also worth mentioning the brilliantly organised Covid safety procedures at the Criterion. On top of the legally mandated distanced seats and mask wearing (which is strictly enforced by the excellent Front of House team), there are staggered entry times and an organised exit at the end. There are also temperature checks on entrance and an in-seat service for ordering drinks, snacks and merchandise. You can even order in advance and it will magically turn up shortly after you take your seat! (Mummy is a big fan of this system, which allowed her to order from the train on the way into the West End and not have to actually queue at a bar or talk to anyone! She hopes this particular change will outlive the pandemic!)

Mummy’s beverage and programme which were delivered swiftly and safely to her seat upon arrival

We had a fantastic evening (or technically two evenings as we did our usual trick of going separately while the other was on munchkin duty) at Amélie and would wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who is looking for a show to see in the coming weeks. It’s a musical of the sort which doesn’t often make its way to the West End but undoubtedly deserves its place there. And it absolutely deserves to be playing to the biggest possible audiences every single night, especially during this extended period of socially distanced performances. So grab yourself a ticket, put on your stagiest mask and head to the Criterion for a feel-good evening of fun, laughter and that magical feeling that can only come with sitting in a room full of other people watching a stage full of performers doing their thing.

Amélie is playing at the Criterion Theatre, Piccadilly from 20 May to 25 September 2021. We saw the evening performances on 8 and 9 June 2021.