Love and Wall: Amour at the Royal Academy of Music

Saturday 27th June 2015, matinée

It’s a familiar story.  The setting is Paris.  A man steals a loaf of bread and ends up in prison.  He escapes and is eventually vindicated, befriending an assortment of street people including an unfeasibly cheerful prostitute and becoming the figurehead of a popular revolution along the way.  No, it’s not ‘Les Miserables’, although it does have another important thing in common with that musical – a luscious sung-through score.
This is ‘Amour’, based on a short story by the French novelist Marcel Ayme, who is said to have written the story in the style of a fable during the second world war in order to escape censorship.  If there was a deep meaning to the story, we’re not sure how well it has survived the musical treatment.  But this is the Royal Academy of Music end of year student show, and here the music is the star.

This is the story of an ordinary man in post-war Paris, a civil servant who suddenly acquires the ability to walk through walls.  As he explores his new powers he grapples with the difficult morality of his position and tries to ‘do good’ by stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, becoming a modern day Robin Hood. But it can’t last, and he suffers a strangely martyr-like fate.  Beneath the fairytale veneer lies a dark world where authority figures are morally corrupt, and the poor stay poor, but that doesn’t stop us having plenty of fun with the story.

If you have only heard that Amour was a Broadway show which flopped in 2002, you might be wondering why the Royal Academy of Music Musical Theatre department would want to use it as an end-of-year show for their students.  You only have to look at the song-list to see why.  With music by Michel Legrand, and English lyrics and book by Jeremy Sams, this musical boasts a vast number of hummable tunes with hilarious lyrics, offering genuine opportunities for everyone to shine.  It is not often that the songs make up for a less-than-tight book, but here there is plenty to delight us.  And we have to say we haven’t come across such consistently good diction in an ensemble cast in a very long time – vital here where so much of the entertainment involves wordplay.

Director Hannah Chissick has created a minimal and seamless staging that keeps the action moving, and although there are no sets as such, there is still plenty of mobile stage furniture to keep us grounded in the period and set the mood, including a rather charming moveable streetlamp.  Musical Director Jordan Li-Smith manages the pacing beautifully, delivering a staggering 42 numbers with actors who are by turns moving the furniture, cycling around the stage and forming a human wall.

As Du Soleil, the unassuming hero, Chris McGuigan immediately caught our eye.  He plays the moral dilemmas his character goes through with conviction, without losing the twinkle in his eye, and he projects the music with charm and a light touch, relentlessly cheerful to the end.  Whether yearning for the ‘Amour’ of the title, or indulging in some wall-penetrating slapstick, he is a pleasure to watch.  He is supported by an excellent cast, including Toby Hine, who has a beautifully clear voice which shines out as the news vendor, as well as a nice comic touch as the world’s most inexperienced lawyer.  Maeve Curry and Karoline Gable indulge in a shameless flirting competition as the co-workers who become rivals for Du Soleil’s love after he becomes famous, having previously found him nothing more than a nerdy irritation.  As the outrageously corrupt Gendarmes, Alfie Parker and Tim Southgate make a great pair with perfectly tuned comic timing and physical comedy (just think of a hundred things to do with a truncheon and you get the idea), and Southgate also has a nice turn as Du Soleil’s tyrannical but ridiculous boss.

The Royal Academy of Music has made a feature out of giving lesser known and quirky musicals a fresh, high quality airing, and this year they’ve done it again.  The ‘Amour’ is most certainly requited!

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