Thursday 9 May 2019

Amour @ Charing Cross Theatre

Amour @ Charing Cross Theatre

The wordless “Overture” of Amour is probably its best moment. Sung only to repeated “bah bah bahs”, the emphasis is on wonderful melody writing and contrapuntal vocal lines, while the staging reflects the hustle and bustle of 1950s Paris. Once the whispy plot kicks in, Amour falls flat.

With music from noted film and jazz composer Michel Legrand (who sadly passed away earlier this year) and lyrics from Didier Van Cauwelaert, the musical was originally performed in Paris in 1997 where it won the Prix Molière for Best Musical. In 2002 it arrived on Broadway, directed by James Lapine and with an English translation from Jeremy Sams, but flopped after two weeks. This production at the Charing Cross Theatre marks the musical’s professional UK premiere, brought to the stage by Danielle Tarento.

That plot then. Full of cliché and thin characterisation, it centres on the civil servant Dusoleil (portrayed gently and meekly by Gary Tushaw) – a typically mild, nerdy hero who magically discovers he can walk through walls and uses his newfound power to woo his love who, of course, has no idea he exists. Isabelle herself has zero agency (though Anna O’Byrne sings the role beautifully), simply a young ward caged in a marriage with an older lustful Prosecutor (Sweeney Todd much?). Adapted from the 1943 short story Le Passe-Muraille from Marcel Aymé, the musical explores the lengths we go to for love and making the ordinary extraordinary. It’s just too flimsy and shallow – as the title suggests it’s a fantasy romance with a sheen of soft lighting and little drama or tension.

It’s also a musical that seems more concerned with cleverness than plot. Legrand’s score includes musical jokes and quotations, while Sams’ translation is old-fashioned and consists of constant rhyming couplets and wordplay that ranges from mildly amusing to groan-inducing. Some crass humour creeps in at times too, jarring against the romantic tone, while the wordy book gets in the way of the melody, turning what was likely poetic French into clunkiness.

The main draw, then, is Legrand’s score. Through-sung, Amour borders on operetta, full of gushing melodies and rich, colourful orchestration (played by the well-balanced orchestra). It’s not always inventive – there are typically Parisian waltzes and oom-pah-pah rhythms, as well as overuse of musical sequences – but it brings character where the book alone falters. Quieter ballads are particularly gorgeous and some a capella singing is arresting – both notable on a purely musical level rather than for any dramatic impetus.

Director Hannah Chissick’s Paris is all baguettes and bicycles in perpetual night, but her direction makes great use of both sides of the traverse staging and keeps the pace swift. And there are great performances from the cast, particularly the ensemble. Claire Machin is especially hilarious as the whore, while the rest of the cast bring life to multiple roles and are given small moments to shine. Like the orchestration, these moments add colour to what is otherwise a bland narrative. With stronger material this passionate cast and crew could have delivered a musical of true love; instead this particular romance is a light and fleeting thing.


Watch: Amour runs at the Charing Cross Theatre until 20th July.

Amour @ Charing Cross Theatre

Amour @ Charing Cross Theatre
Photos: Scott Rylander