To call FellSwoop Theatre’s fifties cabaret bar aesthetic “realistic” would be a criminal understatement. By framing the story of Madame Souza’s fight to rescue her grandson from the crooks who have kidnapped him during the Tour de France as a kind of eclectic floor show, this ten-piece ensemble ensure that their audience are unable to escape the evocative combination of entertainment and eeriness which characterises the style.
This uncanny ability to work as a collective to embody a time, place or feeling recurs throughout; there is an energetic joie de vivre in director Fiona Mikel’s on-stage translation of France’s most famous sporting event, and Madame Souza’s arrival in the fast-moving metropolis is choreographed with bustling panache. Yet, though a stage swirling with mime artists in whiteface, and a jazz-harmony trio to rival the Puppini Sisters capture exactly the spirit of Chomet’s 2003 film, there are times when the production’s commitment to physical theatre, puppetry and minimal dialogue feels like a hindrance rather than a help with regards to the navigation of plot points.
Orphaned cycling fanatic Champion’s early years with his grandmother are communicated well enough, and Jessie Vickerage deserves applause for wittily capturing the passing of time through the aging process of the family dog, but the events immediately following Champion’s kidnap become more than a little muddled. It’s a shame, given that in a 70-minute production every ounce of story ought to be made to count. However, anyone claiming that FellSwoop relies on an audience’s prior knowledge of its source material ought to concentrate a little more; everything becomes clear again soon enough, when Andy Kelly steps in as an emcee-cum-translator for the deliciously cranky ‘triplettes des belleville’.
From here, and into the final 20 minutes, one would be hard-pressed not to bask – not least in the comic bliss of Jesse Meadows, who with her performance as mafia-boss Marcel confirms herself as one of the most talented comic actresses on the Bristol theatre scene. Happily, however, the plaudits are shared: the charm of this highly-engaged ensemble is almost as great as that of the Chomet story being so affectionately interpreted onstage.
FellSwoop Theatre’s Belleville Rendez-vous is at Bristol’s Brewery Theatre until January 28, before continuing on tour.