Telegraph Review of Les Enfants Du Paradis

There’s something wonderfully headstrong and adventure-seeking about the attempt by a group of young actors in London to bring to the stage, on a shoestring, in a room little bigger than a shoebox, that epic of French cinema, Les Enfants du paradis.

Even if the result was un désastre, I’d applaud their pluck, but as it transpires, the result is, by fringe standards, une merveille – and it’s a triumph against the odds mainly because the youthful energy that saturates the production somehow captures the original’s profound mix of gaiety and poignancy.

Of course, there’s no competing with the scale of Marcel Carné’s 1945 cinematic masterpiece: those teeming boulevards of recreated early 19th-century Paris; that playhouse, Théâtre des Funambules, packed to the gods (le paradis), where the poorest (les enfants) hoot, cheer and catcall – all that carnivalesque populousness, itself a miracle of ingenuity given that filming took place under the German occupation.

In terms of numbers, director Sebastian Armesto has a mere 14 actors; his unique selling point, such as it is, is that he can give us colour, not black and white.

Yet you don’t feel especially short-changed. The lack of space works to the adaptation’s advantage during the pocket-sized crowd scenes. With everyone packed together like sardines, you get a powerful sense of bustle and mayhem, of mountebanks and low-lifes criss-crossing each other.

David Brett’s crooked pedlar Jéricho – the one elderly, grizzled face among the 14 – scurries about like an antiquated Artful Dodger, in battered top-hat and ragged coat. The scene changes are announced by a simple, if mock-stylised, parting of a pair of red stage-curtains, brought on and off each time, as though the company (who call themselves Simple 8 ) had decided to pitch their show in the hurly-burly of the street rather than indoors.

More than that, though, the idea of theatre as life, and of life as spectacle, is so ingrained in Jacques Prévert ’s script, faithfully followed here, that what we lose in panoramic panning shots we gain in the close-up detail of performance.

You might think it would be impossible to match the finesse of Jean-Louis Barrault as the forlorn pierrot, Baptiste, but Christopher Doyle seems to have stepped out from a bygone age, perhaps even fallen “from the moon”, as his character professes.

Clearly a gifted mime artist in his own right, Doyle delivers the comic goods early on with a tour de force wordless re-enactment of the pick-pocketing sequence he has just observed – rudely mimicking the physical tics and traits of those involved. He then proceeds to break your heart as the silently suffering fool for love, whose object of desire, Garance, a courtesan-cum-actress, has three other men in thrall.

Most striking of the bunch is Tom Mison, playing the peacockish lothario and would-be giant of the stage Frédérick Lemaître, and seizing with relish the opportunities for stagey melodramatic excess. But there’s fine work, too, from Charlie Hollway as the picture of moustachioed villainy, Lacenaire, and Christopher Hehir as Garance’s aristocratic keeper, the Compte de Montray.

Garance herself, as played by Annalie Wilson, doesn’t quite muster the full enigma of the femme fatale, so memorably incarnated by Arletty, but, given how much has been achieved here in such a small space, it’s hardly damning to suggest that there’s room for improvement. Enfin, thoroughly recommended.