Every once in a while, a film comes out which really captures people’s imaginations. French film director Jean Pierre Jeunet’s 2001 Amélie did exactly that and the film quickly became one of the most successful French films of all time, and the most successful in America. It was also nominated for no less than five Oscars, as well as receiving numerous other international prizes.
The film’s quirky, whimsical story centres on Amélie Poulain – a somewhat neglected child who grows up to be a young Parisian waitress, memorably played by French actor Audrey Tatou, The lonely Amélie lives in a world of her own imagination but also sees the loneliness of those around her and she eventually decides to try and solve her friends’ problems through a series of quirky acts of kindness, which in turn, impact on her own circumstances.
18 years after its original release, Amélie has been given a new lease of life in the form of a stage musical: Amélie – the Musical, currently touring the UK and starring French-Canadian actor Audrey Brisson in the title role.
Brisson had previously starred in Pinocchio at the National Theatre as well as the UK tours of La Strada and The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk. She had also played minor film roles including the Madonna-directed W.E and Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter. She had in fact wanted to play the role Amélie for some time – since 2015 when the musical version had first been staged in America, and had asked her agent to put her forward.
“I really loved the poetry of the film,” Brisson tells me. “It was visually so beautiful with this perfect mix of reality and imagination. It just left you with a breath of fresh air. I loved her quirkiness, her beauty and her capacity for such a huge imagination and the way that she sees the world. The way that she is able to turn something that is essentially grey and drab into a beautiful world full of possibilities. At least for other people. She’s not really doing it for herself and she struggles to find connections and love in her own life, yet she manages to really meddle in other people’s lives. I think that’s really interesting – that contradiction between the way she can’t do things for herself but she’s developed a great talent for doing it for others.”
“There’s this idea that everyone is stuck in this bubble of loneliness,” she continues, “in this routine and this lonely life that we all create for ourselves and sometimes think that we’re alone in. But actually, if you just look up, you’ll see all these different individual bubbles floating around and it’s the same for everyone. Everyone has that same need and desire to connect and is struggling a little bit and that’s what I think is true, not just for the characters in the film but also in our society as well.”
Brisson identified with Amélie on a personal level too. “I can sometimes be a little quirky and aloof, and also, like Amelie, I love raspberries!”
Back in 2015, it turned out the Amélie role in the musical had already been cast, but fast forward a few years and British director Michael Fentiman was looking for someone to play her in the British production. Fentiman had previously directed Brisson in a production of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in Kensington Gardens in 2012 and she must have seemed like an obvious choice, as she herself points out. “I have the same first name as the actress in the film (Audrey),” she says. “I speak French and I’ve got big black eyes like she has so there are a few things that could bring me to the part. But I hope it’s a little bit because I’m talented too!” she laughs.
Whilst Brisson may bear a certain physical resemblance to Audrey Tatou, she also very much brings her own qualities and identity to the role, not least in a strong singing voice. Reviewers have also commented on the physicality and ‘circus quality’ to Brisson’s performance. This is no coincidence, as she grew up touring with French Canadian performance troupe Cirque du Soleil. Her father was a composer for them and she performed with them internationally for many years, first as a four-year-old child – sitting alongside 16 others atop a bicycle, and then for five years, starring in their production Quidam from the age of 16.
Amélie – the Musical, meanwhile, is in fact quite different from the film on which it is based, in many respects. Obviously, the constraints of a stage show necessitated certain differences, but Madeleine Girling’s innovative and striking set design, as well as the cabaret-style, sepia-toned lighting, bring the Parisian locations, including the Metro and the bar where Amélie works, very much to life.
Photo: © Michael Wharley
The show also features new music by Daniel Messé of American band Hem, taking a different approach to Yann Tiersen’s famous, piano-driven theme to its filmic forbear. More traditionally French in style, there are accordions, flutes, violins and double basses, all performed by the staff and customers at the bar where Amélie works, who double-up as French folk musicians.
“I’m enjoying every second of it,” Brisson tells me. “Amélie is such a fascinating character to play and I love telling a story, so I have been fortunate in my very short career to have worked with such fantastic directors and theatre companies that have the same desire to focus on the storytelling.”
“I hope that I get to keep having the same luck and these massive opportunities to create new pieces and when people say ‘What do you see yourself doing in the future?’, I always say ‘I don’t know’, because I hope that the next part hasn’t been created yet! I hope to have the opportunity to create these fantastic new parts and to keep theatre alive, especially in times like now where people are demoralised by what’s happening in the world. I just want to keep reminding myself and everyone in the world that we’re all in this together.”
Amelie: The Musical is on tour throughout the UK until late September 2019
For full tour details, see ameliethemusical.com
EDDI FIEGEL | PHOTOS: PAMELA RAITH PHOTOGRAPHY