Cabaret singers, mime artists in whiteface and a ragtag bunch of musicians welcome you to the Belleville Rendez-vous – a French cabaret bar in the Fifties – where this stage adaptation of the beautifully animated 2003 film is to be played out.
The story starts simply enough, with that all-too-familiar scenario of the orphaned boy sent to live with his grandmother, sadness written on his prematurely aged face. Yet this quirky tale quickly takes a turn for the bizarre – the young champion’s dreams of flying high above the clouds on his little red bicycle feed his grandmother’s determination to turn him into a triumphant Tour de France-winning cyclist. When the grown champion is kidnapped by Mafia hitmen, Madame Souza must rescue her grandson, enlisting the help of three aging jazz singers in the process – their saggy skin and knickers disguising cunning minds.
Quickly quelling any doubts over the potential shortcomings of a stage adaptation of such a visually rich film, Fellswoop Theatre crafts an entire world out of oddities and junk. This gives the piece a homespun, scruffy aesthetic that allows the company’s creativity to flourish through skilful use of puppetry and mime. With few words uttered throughout, Belleville Rendez-vous compels simply by making you wonder what will reveal itself next – Champion’s childhood flight over Paris encounters a carousel of curiosities, his devoted dog’s leathery skin animates the most unexpected of objects. Meanwhile, a junkyard band strum, slap and serenade their way through the live soundtrack, unobtrusively creating a rich layer of atmosphere and effect.
Like Sylvain Chomet’s Oscar-nominated film before it, the whole production has a retro, sepia-toned vibe, while also managing to feel utterly fresh and young at heart. The staging is fast paced and slick, yet the ensemble’s performances retain an air of being unpolished, which is no bad thing. The cast are strongest at the more grotesque end of characterisation – the grimacing triplets hideously hilarious, Madame Souza silently matriarchal, and Bruno the dog huffing his way into the audience’s affections.
It is clear that despite Belleville Rendez-vous marking its Fringe debut, Fellswoop Theatre has something very special on its hands. It is a delightful display of imagination, which brings alive a beautifully told story.