Birmingham Rep – until 30 March 2019
Cyrano de Bergerac is nigh on legendary, whether one knows of the man/the story via celebrated productions starring such stage greats as Derek Jacobi and Anthony Sher, the 1950 film version starring José Ferrer, or the contemporary 80s Steve Martin film Roxanne – the romantic figure with the comically large nose is ubiquitous in Western culture.
But little is known about the man that made the legend, Edmond Rostand, a 19th century French playwright whose legacy seems eclipsed by that of his creation. Alexis Michalik’s play (translated by Jeremy Sams) detailing the fictionalised writing process behind Cyrano, impishly titled Edmond de Bergerac, receives its English premiere in Roxana Silbert’s light-hearted and giddily enjoyable production.
Paris in the dying years of the 19th century and young Edmond Rostand’s (Freddie Fox) latest play, ‘The Distant Princess’, is bombing with audiences and critics alike, despite the efforts of star leading lady Sarah Bernhardt (Josie Lawrence). Dejected, rejected by his peers, suffering from writer’s block, and under pressure from his cash-strapped wife (Sarah Ridgeway) to write a much-needed hit, Edmond eventually finds unlikely inspiration in a small Parisian café. Witnessing the café owner Monsieur Honoré’s (Delroy Atkinson) witty, verbose, self-deprecating but undoubtedly scathing put-down to a racist customer, Edmond is spurred into action. And so Cyrano was born.
With the support of the talented but debt-ridden actor, Coquelin (Henry Goodman), Edmond sets to work on his latest effort. However, the path to artistic perfection never doth run smooth… Feeling his poetic writing is unappreciated in modern society, Edmond lacks the motivation he requires. That is, until he stumbles across young theatre dresser, Jeanne (Gina Bramhill), the would-be suitor of his friend, the handsome but dim actor, Léo (Robin Morrissey). Entreated by Léo to help him woo Jeanne with romantic verse, Edmond soon becomes enraptured by the young woman; his deceitful exchange of love letters with her providing muse enough to bring his play to life.
Michalik’s reflective piece not only borrows some of its plot from Rostand, but also replicates the rhyming verse which, while deemed unfashionable in Rostand’s time, came to characterise Cyrano. Yet Michalik cannot be accused of mere imitation.
The play is farcical (balconies, wobbly ladders, mistaken identities, errant trapdoors…) and fast paced, meaning the 2 ¾ hour run time felt a breeze. Silbert’s production feels suitably frenetic – props fly, actors stumble, at one point the house lights were accidentally switched on – which ultimately adds to the play’s charm. There are also some nicely choreographed moments which stand out, including a hotel scene featuring Feydeau which could be worthy inspiration for one of his farces, and a cinematic sequence which condenses months of writers’ block.
Highly theatrical and tongue-in-cheek, we are nevertheless invested in the future of Coquelin’s career, the Léo/Jeanne/Edmond triangle, and even the fate of Coquelin’s atrocious actor-cum-baker son, Jean (Harry Kershaw). This is very much down to Michalik’s sympathetic script (funny when intended, heartfelt when necessary) and fun performances from a charming cast. Fox is extremely likable as the unassuming Edmond, Lawrence has a ball hamming it up as France’s leading lady, and Goodman delivers a Cyrano worthy of the greats (when he’s not being chased by investors and debt-collectors).
The production is rounded off with Robert Innes Hopkins’ joyously retro set – who can resist the alluring glamour of a red curtain and gold-gilded footlights? – and jaunty but atmospheric accordion music from composer Dave Price. Edmond de Bergerac left me thoroughly entertained; Michalik has created France’s answer to Shakespeare in Love and I wouldn’t be surprised if, while not quite reaching the heights of Cyrano – for what could? – Edmondcontinues to go from strength to strength as a mainstream and popular modern metatheatrical farce.
Edmond de Bergerac plays as the Birmingham Rep until 30thMarch 2019.The cast of Edmond de Bergerac.
Credit: Graeme Braidwood