When relationships fail because the parties concerned want different things, the breakup can be acrimonious and ill-tempered. But Emma Rice’s parting gift to the Globe – the Southbank theatre she is leaving after just two seasons because of differences with the board – is no brickbat, but a bouquet.
Romantics Anonymous is a multifaceted gem, chock-full of love, generosity and joy, and it fits the space like a glove. It’s all the more bittersweet, because witty stagecraft combined with an ability to tug at the heartstrings is a reminder of what a great and distinctive talent the Globe is losing with Rice’s premature departure.
Based on the 2010 French movie Les Émotifs Anonymes, this musical confection – composed with charm by Michael Kooman, and featuring sometimes droll lyrics by Christopher Dimond – is best described as a play with songs rather than an all-singing, all-dancing musical. It charts the tricky relationship between reclusive chocolate maker Angélique (Carly Bawden) and chocolate factory owner Jean-René (Dominic Marsh). Their delicate love affair is almost derailed by their crippling shyness, emotional inarticulacy and burdensome parental expectations.
Parents – sometimes knowingly destructive or just blind fools in hock to their desires – have often been catalysts in Rice’s work for Kneehigh, from the incestuous king in The Wooden Frock (2003) who wants to marry his daughter, to the misguided mother love that keeps a child imprisoned in a tower in Rapunzel (2006). The Wild Bride (2011) featured a dad who sold his daughter to the devil and maimed her in more than one way.
Like a latter-day Hamlet, Jean-René is in thrall to the ghost of his dead father (Philip Cox) who believes staunchly in tradition and – perhaps like the Globe board – refuses to countenance change or risk-taking, even when the chocolate factory faces disaster. Make sure you catch Dad’s jaunty interval song performed in the foyer, a musical poke at the misconceived wisdom of avoiding risk in the theatre and sticking with what you know: “If you don’t do anything, nothing can go wrong.”
Angélique’s bold, brassy mother – a delicious Liverpudlian-soaked performance by Joanna Riding – is the antithesis of her retiring child, crushing her not only with flamboyant behaviour but also with words: “You don’t get to be more complex, more damaged, more special than the rest of us,” she yells at her daughter.
One of the things the show does very well – and often with a wry comic touch – is to suggest that people sometimes see chronic shyness as an affectation, failing to understand how it can destroy a sufferer’s everyday life and relationships. The scenes at the Alcoholics Anonymous-style meetings where everyone begins by announcing “Je suis emotif” are funny and heartbreakingly sad. There is also a sly nod to the self-help market, with Lauren Samuels terrific as the voice on a CD whose best advice for Jean-René is to be “strong and stable”. Intimidating French waiters are sent up mercilessly, too.
In less confident or sensitive hands this might be as cloying as an overscented violet cream, and it is definitely sweet-toothed. But the production is also restrained, and is as unassuming and engaging as its two protagonists. When the Lyon Chocolate Fair judge, Loizeau (Marc Antolin), a man whose medals are made from spoons and forks, proclaims with Bruno Tonioli-style hyperbole that Angélique’s entry is “so shy it becomes bold, so fragile it becomes strong”, he could well be describing Rice’s production.
It’s an evening valiantly served not just by its leads but the entire top-notch, cross-dressing, shape-shifting ensemble and a small but perfectly formed live band. There is also an exquisite Frenchified, tongue-in-cheek design by Lez Brotherston that brings neon lights to the Sam Wanamaker and neatly plays up the space’s chocolate-box aesthetic.
It would be easy to dismiss this small-scale, quirky and original evening as nothing more than a delicious sweet0meat. But like the lonely heart bird-twitchers in Tristan & Yseult, the production is layered with the pain of lives half-lived and constrained by fear. As Jean-René observes, he has spent his entire life “drowning on safe ground”.
Rice proved in the giddy Brief Encounter (2008), where the lovers really did swing from the chandeliers, that nobody presents sexual desire and the transformative joy of love on stage quite as well or with such febrile intensity. So when these lovers risk taking their feet off the ground and tumble through the air, it is utterly irresistible. It sends a signal that Rice, unbowed by her Globe experience, is ready to take a leap in the dark with her new company, Wise Children at the Old Vic, and soar.
• At Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London, until 6 January. Box office: 020-7401 9919.