Bristol Old Vic – until 16 November 2019
It’s been many years since Chris Harris brought pantomime to the Bristol Old Vic and who would have thought then that it would be the French who brought it back. Or to be more specific, who would have thought that Edmond Rostand’s poetic lover and also fighter Cyrano de Bergerac would be the one to bring a very English form back to the King Street venue. It would be unfair to say the whole show falls into panto, but early on Tom Morris’ production suffers from a surfeit of toe-curlingly unfunny comedy. It’s only when the location moves to the battlefield and the production is allowed to breathe and the poetry to sing that the production finally begins to come into its own.
For the French, the poet with the conk is as iconic as Hamlet. A showman with pizzazz, who duels with the same style as he dashes off sonnets, the contradiction at his heart is his shame at his perceived physical deficiency. For while he can outwit or outfight any man, his rather large snout stops him from declaring his love for his childhood friend Roxanne. When the young, handsome but inarticulate Christian catches her eye, he resolves to provide the soul to the charming outward shell of his young friend.
When played to its depths, it is one of the great love stories, telling of one man’s lifetime devotion to one he believes is beyond him. At its best, we should be plunged deep into the soul and Tristan Sturrock gives it his all to get us there. His is a rather terrific Cyrano, fleet of thought and foot, he dominates the stage in a charismatic turn that eclipses almost everything else we see on stage. It’s a technical bravura turn, but one where the production around him doesn’t fully let us see the pain within. The moment he believes and then is denied a declaration of love should be heart-breaking. Here it feels a temporary set-back.
Most of this can be laid at the feet of a work that mostly lays down its comedy with a thud. It just isn’t particularly funny and the mugging doesn’t help it. When the pathos eventually comes it’s asking its audience to do too much to meet it on equal terms. The work is much better when they let Peter Oswald’s poetry sing, the rhyming couplets zinging with particular relish. The scenes on the front line are also beautifully realised, as Richard Howell’s lighting and Ti Green’s barricade darkens to resemble an over-the-top charge from the Somme.
In many ways it feels like a valedictory show; if not of Morris’ reign (there has been no suggesting this is coming) but at least of an era. It’s an all-star cast of the Morris years, with all seven players having taken part in these years’ greatest hits. Yet few truly stand out apart from Sturrock and Felix Hayes, who puts that deep bass rumble (the best voice in theatre right now?) to good use as the villain of the piece De Guiche.
By the end, the piece’s deliberate switches between comedy and tragedy seem to have defeated a game but flagging cast. The greatness of the piece is never fully revealed even if in the swaggering Sturrock, moments are fitfully illuminated.
Cyrano plays at Bristol Old Vic until the 16 November.