Marcel Carné's great 1945 film Les Enfants du Paradis is steeped in the Parisian theatre of the 1840s. Each of its two parts begins and ends with the rise and fall of a stage curtain. Different types of theatrical expression - from the mime artistry of the Funambules to prolix, over-the-top 19th-century melodrama and Shakespearean revival - become metaphors for diverse approaches to life.
The ambiguity built into the verb "to act" (equivocating between pretence and reality) is passionately probed. But the idea that this classic piece of cinema could therefore be converted, with ease and naturalness, into equally compelling theatre looked highly questionable 10 years ago when Simon Callow directed his own adaptation in a panned production at the Barbican.
So it's a joy to report that Dudley Hinton and Sebastian Armesto - who are too young to have witnessed that well-intentioned but ill-conceived attempt - have managed to solve the problem with terrific flair and élan in the version that they have created with Simple 8 Theatre Company. Unveiled at the Arcola in a splendidly involving production directed by Armesto, this is the kind of committed ensemble work, performed on a shoestring and as a labour of love, that puts to shame the relatively unenterprising fare at times proffered by comfortably funded outfits.
Ironically, this theatrical re-working of Les Enfants du Paradis succeeds by (broadly speaking) taking the opposite tack to Callow. The Barbican version was literal-minded. It tried to emulate the movie's extremes of scale (the hundreds of extras in the thronging street scenes, the epic sense of a multilevel theatre) with an equivalent amplitude. But cinema is also the art of the close-up, and in the continual long-shot of theatre Callow merely contrived to dwarf and dehumanise the performers on a massive, dimly lit and indefatigably revolving set. The effort to pack in everything resulted in a bloated, four-hours-plus ordeal.
Colonising the intimate studio-space at the Arcola, this new production explores the power of the counterintuitive. Fielding 14 actors and with no backdrops (lavish or otherwise), the company presents a streamlined two-and-a-half-hour adaptation that harnesses the audience's imagination and makes eloquent use of spare, well-chosen props.
The evening begins and ends with a red theatre curtain slumped on the ground like a pool of blood. This is hoisted on poles by two actors and, in a rough-and-ready, do-it-yourself fashion, it becomes a means of punctuation and of providing a discreet screen.
The achievement of the production is to conjure up the swirl of carnival and bitchy backstage life with energy and focus, at the same time as doing handsome justice to the emotional detail in the story's interlocking triangles of love and murderous lack of love.
The principals are excellently cast. Although she could be a touch more inscrutable, Annalie Wilson radiates voluptuous magnetism as Garance, the beauty who graduates from homeless artist's model to a Count's kept and disaffected courtesan.
As her (thematically) rival suitors, the handsome and talented Tom Mison is both wittily narcissistic and movingly honest in the role of the philandering star of melodrama (whose travails with Garance are a good apprenticeship for his landmark jealous Othello), while Christopher Doyle pierces the heart with his lovelorn vulnerability and lunar, other-worldly quality as the pierrot Baptiste, performing the mime sequences with passionate precision. And Charlie Holloway brings just the right note of amused contempt and philosophical nihilism to the role of the dandified murderer Lacenaire, a man who writes unperformed farces but who is temperamentally confined to the pseudo-creativity of offstage crime.
The production is not perfect, but it generates its own strong self-conviction. This is the season when there's an epidemic of prediction in newspapers about the year to come. I suggest it will be well worth keeping an eye on Sebastian Armesto and crew.
Ends tomorrow (020-7503 1646; www.arcolatheatre.com)
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