Here is a double treasure. A superb production and a new (newish) company possessing the skills, intelligence and dedication to create such a wonder.
The company is simple8, formed three years ago by eight theatre workers keen to develop techniques of ensemble acting and, in their own words, “produce simple stories, simply told”.
They have certainly chosen a hard nut to crack in their first major London production. Turning Marcel Carné’s 1945 masterpiece of cinema into a two-hour play is a project where pitfalls yawn on every side. The densely packed street scenes of pleasure-seeking Parisians, with which the film opens and closes, are the vital background to the interlocking love and murder stories that occur within the theatres, boarding houses and Turkish baths that line the so-called Boulevard du Crime. How will the company persuade us that this background exists, even with 14 actors doubling, not to say sextupling, roles?
That they do so with such spirited conviction is because director Sebastian Armesto, his movement director Allison Collogna and the actors themselves have indeed created an ensemble. They introduce vivid details of behaviour, subordinate these to the total effect, play with theatrical illusions in this most theatrical of tales, and interact with an easy, natural grace that seems, well, simple.
Annalie Wilson’s enigmatic Garance figures in all the love triangles as she works her way up through the levels of 1830s society from homeless waif to kept (and bored) courtesan. She is playfully admired by the rising actor Lemâitre (Tom Mison), adored by the tormented mime artist Baptiste (Christopher Doyle), intrigues the world-weary assassin Lacenaire (Charlie Hollway) and is jealously desired by Christopher Hehir’s Comte de Montray. First-class playing by all, and astoundingly poignant mime from Doyle.
Variously obsessive, variously self-deluded, the characters in Jacques Prévert’s screenplay (adapted here by Armesto and Dudley Hinton) all involve themselves in the arts of theatrical illusion — alluded to here by bringing on actors to hoist a red curtain that will reveal or conceal embraces or a murder.
To have made the swirl of passions, betrayals and teeming crowds so exciting and so moving, and on so bare a stage, is a true achievement.
By Jeremy Kingston