REVIEW: Amélie the Musical (Birmingham Alexandra) | theatre

We booked to see Amélie very spontaneously about a week ago, knowing very little about it, and… well. It was a journey.

This is definitely not the best photo, but even with editing the lighting did me no favours. Hand modelling by my mum.

The synopsis for Amélie is somewhat vague and very short, describing simply that she is a French girl who isolates herself but orchestrates small acts of kindness; she then has a chance to fall in love and she has to change how she would normally act. For me, it sounded perfect – I love to see introverted characters begin to thrive across the story of a show, and I’m a sucker for a romance.

I really wanted to love it. The fact that the cast are also the orchestra is amazing, and every single one of them is so incredibly talented. The music is beautiful, and the choreography that goes with it; the movement whilst they play and how it intertwines with the changing of the sets, it has everything within it to be amazing. For me, it was the story and its pacing that stopped me from loving it.

This musical version of Amélie is based on the film, which I admit that I haven’t seen (can you tell by my reliance on the tiny synopsis?). My issue with it came with the pace – the first half seemed to take a very long time to cover a very short period of time, whereas the second half covered a much bigger chunk of time at a much quicker speed. The romance was barely built throughout before it peaked in the space of about ten minutes at the end, meaning I had very little connection to the characters and I wasn’t overly bothered by their story. The director (Mike Fentiman) says in the programme that the show is a “simple, gentle, moving exploration of human loneliness and isolation”, and whilst I see that such a slow-moving romance should show this, the end felt so rushed that I feel like it stops this from being what the audience takes away from it.

The set is brilliantly done – most, if not all, the shows I’ve seen in the last few years have had very simple sets which then have basic sets revealed in them, or lighting/projections mostly used to represent the scenes throughout (see my review of The Color Purple ), so this was very different for us, but I really liked it. The set is highly elaborate, mostly used as a train station but elements are moved by the cast throughout to use them differently; the pianos have sets hidden within and the photobooth doubles as a door when rotated. Again, the choreography was so clever in moving pieces like the photobooth and I did really enjoy that!

The final element that I didn’t really get on with was the blurred lines between Amélie’s reality and her daydreams, letters and (slight spoilers) the sort-of hallucinations of one of the other characters. I’m fairly sure these lines are blurry on purpose, but Elton John and a gnome dressed as a samba dancer turning up at random points didn’t necessarily confuse me, but it almost took the tone of the show to a different place quite suddenly; it became more slap-stick like, and I found it quite hard to get into the story due to this constant movement.

It was a genuine shame for me that I found the pace so difficult – maybe it’s the fact that I haven’t seen the film, or maybe I just don’t have the same appreciation for the way this show is constructed that others might have. The music and choreo was so good and every member of the cast is extremely talented (they can sing, dance, act AND play instruments – often doing several of those things simultaneously) so I did enjoy it, but it just wasn’t the show, the story for me.

REVIEW: The Color Purple – The Musical (Birmingham Hippodrome) | theatre

The stage at the end of the show, and the front of the programme.

I read The Color Purple by Alice Walker when I was about 12, it having been recommended to me as a sort of alternative classic. As such a young white girl, it was one of the first things that made me truly aware of my privilege and it has stuck with me ever since. So, when it was advertised that it was playing in Birmingham I almost immediately booked a pair of tickets – and I am so, so happy I did.

T’Shan Williams as the protagonist, Celie, is stunning; she carries the innocence and slight naivety that Celie has during her early life before transforming into the empowered woman we see after she has met Shug Avery (Joanna Francis) and Sofia (Karen Mavundukure). Both of these women were also phenomenal – they had stage presence second to none and I think the audience hung on to their every word. Obviously, both of these women are key to the story in teaching Celie what is right and wrong, and the actresses carried off their characters so well. I also adored Danielle Fiamanya as Nettie, and it may be my only gripe with the show that she is not on stage for half as much as I wanted her to be! Her chemistry with T’Shan Williams was incredible and they seemed to fit so easily as sisters throughout, and their voices came together absolutely beautifully.

Every character in this show is important to Celie’s journey in some way, and every character was pulled off with such energy, and you could tell that this show meant so much to every actor and actress in it. We went on closing night, and the cast’s group hug at the end of the bows had me almost in tears. I loved all their individual voices but it was so joyous to listen to groups of the cast sing, and the scenes and music blended so seamlessly from the heart-breaking scenes to the high-spirited. I’d be hard-pushed to say I have any favourites, but I loved “Hell No!” (Sofia) and “Big Dog” (Mister, Field Hands and Celie). In the second half, I was almost stunned by Mister’s solo “Mister Song”, by Ako Mitchell, because he hadn’t sung with such emotion and musicality in the first half.

One of the things I love most about this story is the contrasting lives of Sofia and Harpo (Simon-Anthony Rhoden) to those of Celie and Mister, because they show the breaking of the cycle and how children will not necessarily become like their parents. I think it’s really important that they cut the narrative, and Harpo throughout was so lovely to watch flourish. And finally, there has to be a shout-out given to the Church Ladies (Danielle Kassarate, Rosemary Annabella Nkrumah and Landi Oshinowo) who provided the light-hearted transitions throughout and seemed to appear at slightly hilariously inappropriate moments.

I adored the set for this show, in which at the beginning all that can be seen is two cut out triangles and a rectangle; the sets appear as and when around the actors with some props being organically taken on and off set by those in the scene. The set designer (Alex Loade) says in the programme that because Celie has little control over her life, “it makes sense… [that] Celie remains fixed and the locations arrive around her”. I enjoyed how basic each set was, only adding what was needed to the story, never distracting. The only static prop is the letterbox, which as a key part to the story, and Mister’s control of Celie, is entirely appropriate.

The set at the beginning of the show which gives little away

The costumes had a similar effect, for me – in the opening song, it was noticable for me that there was very little colour except for the outfits of Nettie and Celie, the latter of which was slightly muted as if showing the fact that she was seen as somewhat beneath Nettie, who shone in her bright yellow dress, her hair down in braids. This continues across the show, with the exception of the gorgeous bright blue outfits in the letters scene where Celie is imagining where Nettie is – the stark contrast to the muted scenes of Celie’s life clearly gives the impression of desperation and imagination and wishing, and it is stunning.

I can’t recommend this show more, and it easily gets 5/5 from me (and my mum, who I always drag to the theatre!) – I truly hope it gets a tour or transfer to the West End as it will be such a shame if more people don’t get to see it. I think it’s such a brilliant show in that it has those light-hearted moments and amazing choreography, but that never takes away from the serious tale at hand.

Photo from the bows at the end of the show – an extremely deserved standing ovation for their closing show! (Photos allowed during the bows).