A Series of Fortunate Events

Serendipity. It’s a lovely word that just seems to roll off the tongue. I was first introduced to it as a child through a series of delightful books: Serendipity was the name of a pink dragon who went on to star as both the logo and the name of the publishing company. More people probably think of the 2001 rom-com starring John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale. The English word originates in the 18th century: author Horace Walpole was fascinated by the Persian fairy tale of the three princes of Serendip—the island of Sri Lanka. The princes travelled the world making fortuitous discoveries of “things they were not in quest of”. It’s now defined in the Oxford English dictionary as “the faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident”.

It’s a word that I’ve been thinking about a lot this week, how one seemingly simple, unrelated event can lead to a host of positive experiences. For me, that event was a disastrous trip into town just a week ago. I had arrived with a shopping list and left feeling a bit like a dissatisfied Goldilocks: the things I wanted to buy either weren’t in stock or weren’t quite what I was looking for. Nothing was just right. I was about to leave the town centre empty-handed when I stopped to buy a Big Issue from our local vendor.

These magazines are the only ones I actually find the time to read. They provide a great overview of current events and opinions, reviews of books, films, and television shows, and highlight a number of social justice issues. But that wasn’t what caught my eye this time: instead, it was full-page ad showing an awkward couple and the text Romantics Anonymous—it was a new musical at the Bristol Old Vic theatre.

I showed it to MrElaineous, who was more familiar with it than I was. “Oh, I saw that advertised on Facebook. I sort of want to see it. Should we go?”*

And with that we began the slightly drawn out process of trying to book tickets. The only seats available that didn’t have a pillar in front of them were in the very front row. We hemmed and hawed: would it be too close? Would it be a literal pain in the neck to look up at the stage? Finally, we took the plunge and bought them.

Just a few days later, we found ourselves in Bristol. The problem with it being our old stomping ground is that we have a tendency to just do the same things: go to the same restaurants, the same entertainment venues. There was a danger of us just drifting along the waterfront to the Watershed; it’s a favourite place to grab a bite to eat, but one that is a default rather than a deliberate choice.

Yet on our way there, something different caught our attention. To be honest, it was hard to ignore: a boat sat in the harbour decorated with twinkling white fairy lights (American readers: decorative lights like you use at Christmas). This was Under the Stars: a boat, yes, but also a restaurant serving tapas and pizza. While the menu got us through the door, it was the charming ambience, friendly service, and delicious food that we ended up talking about. The power of serendipity was starting to work its magic.

Next, we walked into the stunning renovated foyer of the Old Vic as projected images started to play on the centuries-old brick wall. They showed the history of the theatre from 1766, the mix of new technology and classic architecture leading to a stunning pre-show film that held us rapt. The house was now open and we were amazed we had managed to get there at just the right time to catch this unexpected treat.

We descended into the pit. The seats we had spent so much time worrying about were perfect: right in the centre and neither too low nor too cramped. Just right in fact. Once settled in, I was able to look around at the time capsule we found ourselves in. The Old Vic is the oldest continuously working theatre in the English-speaking world, and the interior is what you imagine an 18th century theatre would look like. Indeed, MrElaineous sometimes works as an extra and he found himself at the Old Vic not too long ago to record a period television show. I tried to imagine what it would have been like to watch a play by Shakespeare or Sheridan back then, the stage lit with candles and torches, and wondered whether the Old Vic ever offered evenings with traditional lighting—I’d be willing to sign a health and safety waiver for the experience!

Neon was the lighting of choice for the set of Romantics Anonymous. It and the sparse staging were used with great effectiveness as the backdrop to a story about the magic of chocolate, the transformative power of love, and the importance of being willing to shake things up and break the mould. Based on the French-Belgian film Les Émotifs Anonymes and adapted by Emma Rice, the musical hits the expected notes of a rom-com but in its own charming, quirky ways.

Angélique is a talented chocolate-maker with the unfortunate tendency to faint when anyone looks at her. Jean-René is the owner of a failing chocolate factory who has overactive sweat glands and difficulty communicating with others. They share a love for chocolate and the desire to improve their current situation: the latter relies on self-help tapes and the former on Les Émotifs Anonymes, a support group for those who feel too much.

Anyone familiar with the power of expanding one’s comfort zone and removing limiting beliefs will recognise the journey the main characters go through. In particular, I found the musical did a wonderful job of highlighting the importance of balance (and not just in Jean-René’s yoga!): it is the mix of a solid grounding and blue-sky thinking, of tradition and innovation, of the bitter and the sweet that makes life delicious.

As Angélique and Jean-René, performers Carly Bawden and Marc Antolin are perfect in the roles, bringing out every ounce of the characters’ humour, pathos, and humanity. The rest of the ensemble—there are only seven others who carry out the roles of nearly 20 characters—are equally superb. They work together like a well-oiled, chocolate-making machine, swapping clothes, accents, and accoutrements with ease. We are big fans of the Mischief Theatre’s The Play That Goes Wrong and its resulting spinoffs, and there were so many places where things could go very wrong … but everything was performed without a hitch and with the joy, enthusiasm, and electricity that is live theatre.

MrElaineous himself flits from one amateur dramatic production to another (next up: Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat) and we agreed that it would be an ideal show for an amateur group to perform because everyone in the cast and crew gets a chance to shine. I can foresee am-dram groups across the country hungry to get their hands on the score, and I’m certainly looking forward to the opportunity to enjoy a second helping at some point in the future.

But, until then, if you are reading this in the vicinity of Bristol, you still have a few days to check out Romantics Anonymous at the Old Vic before it goes on a world tour. If you’re in the US and located near Washington, D.C., Charleston, or L.A., keep an eye out for it. It’s something you may not have been on an intentional quest for, but I can promise you that it is a very happy discovery indeed.

Clearly targeted theatre advertising is the way to get through to us.

Off the Beaten Track Wiltshire

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