Romantics Anonymous

Written by Richard Barber

It is somehow fitting that the end of Emma Rice’s sometimes controversial tenure as artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe should indeed be a swan song, a charming musical that owes nothing whatever to the Bard. Romantics Anonymous, based on the 2010 French-Belgian film Les Emotifs Anonymes, tells the tale of two terminally shy 20-somethings, Angélique and Jean-René, given to fainting fits and profuse sweating respectively when confronted with the sort of social interaction most of us take in our stride.

She’s a peerless chocolatier; he owns a failing chocolate house. Could the gifts of the first save the fortunes of the second, and could they find true love along the way? Well, what do you think?

Carly Bawden and Dominic Marsh perfectly inhabit the tongue-tied lead roles, but there is much inspired ensemble work from a small cast often doubling as other characters. The always reliable Joanna Riding as a factory floor martinet, in a  pinny and beneath a brown beret, and as Angélique’s blowsy mother, in a basque and not much else, is unrecognisable in both roles. Philip Cox, as Jean-René’s ultra-conservative (dead) father and as a sort of agony uncle hotel receptionist, is spot-on. But the evening’s biggest laughs come from Gareth Snook as Angélique’s moustachioed first boss; as an incoherent member of the support group she attends to  help conquer her affliction; and as a gloriously over-the-top female client of Jean-René’s faltering enterprise. So pitch-perfect are his characterisations, you’re forced to consult the programme to confirm that, yes, he inhabits all three roles.

This is more a play with music than a musical, but that’s not to denigrate Michael Kooman’s attractive score or Christopher Dimond’s literate, witty lyrics, all of which are served well by a first-rate four-piece band under musical director Jim Henson. The setting helps, too. The Globe’s indoor Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is a jewel of a space and perfectly accommodates this slight but engaging offering. (The same cannot be said for the foyer/ reception area, with all the charm of a corporate exhibition centre.)

I’d be surprised if this doesn’t resurface somewhere in the West End in due course. It’s a confection as delicate as spun sugar but just as sweet. And I’d defy anyone to resist our lovers literally turning cartwheels in the  air at the evening’s conclusion.

At the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London SE1 until 6 January: 020-7401 9919, www.shakespearesglobe.com