Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds – until 6 May 2017
You’ve hardly sat down before there’s a jolly mass drinking-song in pantaloons, leather breastplates and hat-feathers being romped through in front of cod-17c drapes covered in zodiac signs, followed by a magnificent somersaulting dwarf pickpocket emerging from a bustle, a wild chase, a fabulous spread of patisserie and a violent duel with rapiers in a theatre not unlike our own dear Bury. During which Cyrano simultaneously swashbuckles, leaps on and off tables and recites a complicated duel-poem. Then off he goes to fight a hundred men waiting in ambush for a friend, bring their hats home as trophies and proceed with sighing of love and despairing of his ugliness.
Which is to say, of his huge nose. Which, be reassured ladies, though a fine prosthesis which never falls off even in extreme fight scenes, does not entirely quench the gorgeous Christian Edwards’ appeal. Energy attracts, even accompanied by the strangest of noses, and energy is what Edwards has in abundance.
It’s a mad, poetic, roistering, barnstorming thing, Rostand’s original 1890’s play. Cyrano’s ugliness makes him despair of being loved by the lovely and brilliant Roxane, but also fuels a headlong, pugnacious arrogance and “ferocious integrity”. And, as it turns out, a sort of self-sacrificing but bonkers nobility which (I speak as a past French schoolchild) strikes me as the rich rank fruit of a Roman Catholic culture. There were a lot of martyrs in our convent school curriculum, back then. Also, a lot of rhetorical flourishes, and Rostand is not short of those: so in adapting it Deborah McAndrew goes for broke with the long speeches, rhymes, and almost rap-style rapid assonances dear to Cyrano and his cohort of warlike cadet poets, plus the devoted patissier Ragueano and the drunken yet musically gifted Ligniere.
So, very French, not least in a plot which makes even Shakespeare’s more exotic flights seem realistic. Roxane, here a dignifiedly mournful-looking Sharon Singh, is desired by the wicked count De Guiche, who tries to marry her to a wet nobleman who will be willing to share her favours. Cyrano, her cousin, loves her purely, to the extent that he’ll disrupt a theatre with that crazy rhyming duel merely out of fury that the star once looked lustfully at her. She, however, falls for pretty-boy Christian (Adam Barlow) who has no gift of language. So Cyrano writes the love letters – a beloved Victorian-era trope, that – prompts the dimbo lover from a dark bush and finally takes over, standing aside only for Christian to claim the actual kiss and the bride, leaving our big-schnozzled hero bereft. Everyone off to war, then, and there’s a death, and a revelation of how Roxane really feels. Fourteen years pass and, amid some nuns, there’s the love ’n death scene.
Which goes on too long. That is a problem. At 2 hrs 45 minutes a generally highly enjoyable romp could have done with stern trimming by director-composer Conrad Nelson: too many long poetic flights, so that at some moments you feel you actually have lived through the Thirty Years War. But take away twenty minutes and it’d be perfect. The songs are lovely, Edwards is tremendous, and the ensemble are Northern Broadsides at their merriest: broad Yorkshire and Lancashire voices suiting the military rowdiness and banter brilliantly well .
Indeed all the cast are smart, funny and elegantly choreographed. A particular palm should go to Francesca Mills as the tumbling pickpocket, the patissier’s apprentice and a small but resolute nun . Not because she is of “restricted growth” but because in athleticism, comic timing, clarity and utterly credible sincerity of reaction she’d be a treasure at any height, in any company.