Tag Archives: Criterion Theatre

“Amélie” at The Criterion Theatre

This already acclaimed show is enjoying a brief run at one of London’s most beautiful theatres. If you have any doubts about musicals made from movies, then think again. Full of invention and intelligence, Amélie on stage is an escape from the screens we’ve been glued to during lockdown. And I loved it for that alone.

Craig Lucas’ book follows Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Guillaume Laurant’s film faithfully. The quirky touches around the life of the titular French waitress we follow are present. But the adaptation is far from slavish: rising to the challenge of bringing suicidal goldfish and travelling garden gnomes to the stage, Michael Fentiman’s direction embraces eccentricity.

Time is taken over Amélie’s childhood (with a “neurotic and an iceberg” for parents), then on her adventures trying to help others. Oh, and Lady Di’s death features too… leading to a number for Elton John just as brilliantly insane as it sounds. Romance comes later, by which time, thanks to Audrey Brisson’s performance in the title role, a crazy courtship with equally oddball Nino is compelling.

Amelie The Musical 2 Pamela Raith Photography

There are appropriately novel touches in the music from Daniel Messé. The songs echo the show’s obsession with the senses – highlighting sight, smell, touch and taste. A number about figs is ripe to join lists of obscure song subjects. The lyrics, by Messé and Nathan Tysen, go a long way in saving the show from too much sentimentality by being unusually morbid…well, it’s a strategy.

Amélie is not perfect. No man could be good enough for our heroine, but the character of Nino really needs some work (far too dull despite Chris Jared’s efforts). Both score and story try hard to be profound. Too hard at times. We can admire getting Zeno’s paradoxes into a musical, but the treatment is heavy handed. The show’s charm and humour are occasionally overplayed. And there’s a big problem with cod accents… understandable, but nonetheless annoying.

Focusing on Amelie’s dreams and imagination is enhanced by a talented cast that brings her world to the stage. The fact that they are all actor-musicians helps – wouldn’t it be great if everyone carried around instruments in real life? But the ensemble is especially graceful: huge credit to movement director Tom Jackson Greaves and a special mention for Kate Robson-Stuart’s performance. An awful lot gets done with pianos and ’cellos, as instruments form a part of Madeleine Girling’s wonderful full-of-surprises set. And the puppetry by Dik Downey is effective. The result is a pleasant irony – while the show talks about how hard times are for dreamers, Amélie brings dreams to the stage with ease.

Until 25 September 2021


Photos by Pamela Raith

“The 39 Steps” at the Criterion Theatre

The British love a little light self-deprecation. And jolly good we are at it, too. With an adaptation masterminded by Patrick Barlow (of National Theatre of Brent fame) of John Buchan’s 1914 boy’s-own spy thriller, The 39 Steps is full of clichés ripe for poking fun at and has earned plenty of awards for doing just that: the stiff upper lips, sexism and jingoism of the past have been making audiences at The Criterion theatre rock with laughter for the last five years.

The stage show is as much a tribute to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film as it is to the original story. Scenes are re-enacted, including the famous escape on the Forth Bridge, and, if that sounds impossible, other movies and a cameo from the great director are thrown in as well. But this is pure theatre – laughing at its limitations while showing the power of the medium. The inventiveness of a hardworking cast of four, minimal props and faux improv are something to celebrate.

Actress Maria Aitken directs and makes The 39 Steps a joy for its absurdly versatile cast – the actors even get to draw upon all that drama school training pretending to be trees and rocks. Rufus Wright is the dashing Richard Hannay, who goes from worrying about his pencil moustache to running away from a dastardly spy ring. Laura Rogers plays all the women admirably, especially Annabella Schmidt, the spy that Hannay takes home and offers kippers to. The other 135 roles are performed by just two men: Dermot Canavan (having great fun in drag) and, on the performance I saw, the understudy James Hurn who put on such a jolly good show that my only quibble is that he didn’t get the extra bow he deserved.

The 39 Steps isn’t for everyone. Steer clear if you hate slapstick and be prepared for some awful puns. But here’s a tip – the show is great for visitors, even those that might have English as a second language. The humour’s broad appeal means Johnny Foreigner will be able to laugh along as you show you’re a true Brit by laughing at yourself. In fact, seeing this show is practically a patriotic duty – so come on chaps!


Written 13 September 2011 for The London Magazine