The result allows Mr. Lustgarten to work on two levels. On the one hand, we look on grim-faced as Mr. McArdle’s catarrh-filled Walsingham fights for survival alongside an expletive-prone queen who revels in her power. But the specifics of the narrative repeatedly leap the centuries to connect up to the here and now.
As he reaches his inevitable — spoiler alert! — demise, Walsingham boasts of an end to the pervasiveness of threat and war, only to be put right by the queen’s stern personal secretary, Sir William Cecil (Ian Redford, cunningly dispassionate): “Can you promise me, our idiot queen, our gullible and fearful population, there will be no more threats? Now? Next year? Forever?” It is, of course a rhetorical question, and the audience leaves the theater fully aware that some queries are best left unanswered.
The mood of “The Secret Theatre” works perfectly in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse — which has always billed itself as a Jacobean playhouse, that’s to say capturing the style and setting of an underrepresented theatrical era — and recalls such gore-fests of the period as John Webster’s “The Duchess of Malfi,” the very play with which the theater first opened its doors in January 2014. (The theater is named for Sam Wanamaker, an American actor without whose perseverance the outdoor Globe would never have been built.)
What we don’t expect to encounter at this address is something as breezy — and fully lit (no candlelight) — as “Romantics Anonymous,” a sweet-natured and giddy new musical that is about as far from “The Secret Theatre” as a show can be.
Adapted from a French film from 2011 of the same name, the show relates one of those gradual coming togethers of reluctant lovers guaranteed to leave the audience purring as one by the final curtain. In this instance, playgoers are sweetened from the moment they arrive by offers of chocolate from cast members that help set the mood.
“Romantics Anonymous” is directed by Emma Rice, who with this production marks her departure as artistic director of the Globe after a tricky few years that found her at odds with the theater’s board. If Ms. Rice is feeling any bitterness , it is nowhere in evidence. Instead, we are treated to the burgeoning affections of the cripplingly shy Angélique (Carly Bawden), a chocolate-maker extraordinaire, and the gauche proprietor of a chocolate factory, Jean-René (Dominic Marsh, sporting serious sideburns). Both look as if they would prefer to dive headfirst into a vat of the sweet stuff rather than risk human interaction.
But communicate they must and they do across a score that may devote a bit too much attention to announcing the characters’ traits but possesses its own faux-Gallic charms, not least in the zesty chansons that come the way of the matchless Joanna Riding, who juggles three roles with ease throughout. (She’s especially formidable as a doctor who is comically revolted by her patients.)
The gently Satie-inflected score is by the New York team of Michael Kooman (music) and Christopher Dimond (lyrics), while Ms. Rice doubles as director and also author of the book. In a prefatory note in the program, Ms. Rice writes of her heart feeling “full to the brim, like the characters,” and there’s an innocence and sincerity to the piece that keep it from turning cloying. (That was the fate of Ms. Rice’s previous foray into things French, “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” on the West End in 2011.) Think of “Romantics Anonymous” as a gleaming antidote to the purposefully murky abrasions of “The Secret Theatre,” from a playhouse that at the moment is shining very bright.