A wistful tune played on an accordion is the first sound you hear in the Watermill’s new adaptation of Amélie, writes GilesWoodforde.

In the background, Madeleine Girling’s brilliant set design evokes one of those old-fashioned, white-tiled Paris Metro stations. You can almost smell it – and inevitably you now wonder if you can smell the burnt timbers of Notre-Dame as well.

Amélie first appears as a child in the form of a rather pudgy puppet. But soon she emerges as the girl familiar from Audrey Tatou’s portrayal in the 2001 film. Small of stature and elfin in appearance, her huge eyes sparkle with wonderment at the world around her. But the eyes also strongly suggest that Amélie inhabits a second world of inner dreams. She takes a job as a café waitress, and each evening she returns alone to her cocoon, a tiny bedsit perched up above the Metro station. In a splendidly whimsical touch, she commutes by flying up to her window Peter Pan-style, attached to a lampshade.

As the days pass, all sorts of magical characters emerge out of the shadows. A tight-fisted grocer faces a Parisian-style uprising from his stock of giant figs. An equally enormous garden gnome regales the café customers with stories of his travels. But the most wonderful scene of all comes when Amélie thinks about the funeral of Princess Diana (the show is set in the late 1990s). A magnificent Elton John (Caolan McCarthy) duly arrives to sing in heavily vibrato-laden style, while the name Diana woven into the floral tributes transforms into Amélie.

The Oxford Times:

Daniel Messé’s score (he also co-wrote the lyrics with Nathan Tysen) runs right through the show – there is very little spoken dialogue. Individual numbers are intertwined with passages of recitative, reminiscent of Stephen Sondheim.

Like Sondheim, you need to catch every word, and that wasn’t always easy at the performance I attended. This being the Watermill, it’s an actor-musician production, and the twelve-strong company boasts an impressive array of instrumental skills.

After running in at the Watermill the show goes straight into a tour of much larger venues, including the New Theatre, Oxford. At times it seemed as if the sound balance was anticipating this big size change, with instruments drowning voices, and the overall volume level being wound up too many notches. But the score has a charming and appropriately Gallic flare to it nonetheless.

Audrey Brisson could have been born to play Amélie. She hits just the right mix of whimsical wonderment and inner steel in an assured performance. Her eventual love interest with Nino (Chris Jared) is feelingly and amusingly developed as they attempt to move forward from their awkward initial encounters. There are no weak links in the rest of the ensemble cast as they relish their eccentric roles.

Kept free of sugary sentimentality by director Michael Fentiman, Amélie is a great feelgood show which deserves to be a widespread hit. 5/5

* At the Watermill, Newbury, until May 18. At New Theatre, Oxford, from June 17-22.