Jermyn Street Theatre, London – until 17 December 2022
What could be more seasonal than Flaubert’s tale of wifely frustration, romantic illusions, disastrous adulteries and ruinous shopaholic debt? This adaptation is a clown-skilled four-hander by John Nicholson – founder of the gleefully clever Peepolykus. So there’s a lot of sudden hat-swopping and artful prop-work and chalk scribbles made real by pinpoint-skilful sound effects. There’s a scene of fine erotic prestidigitation (magic, to you) and a jokey meta-theatrical “framing” of the story by two travelling ratcatchers who encounter poor Emma Bovary at the point of her proposed suicide.
So it starts with an author-narrator explaining that since it’s Christmas there’s going to be a happy ending for once, and begins at the end of the book , promising that – after Emma has told her whole tale of frustration – one of the ratcatchers will thwart her suicide and bear her off to the bright lights of Paris to fulfil her hopeless lifelong provincial dreams. But will he? Remain on the edge of your seat, though you might fall off laughing.
Any classic tragedy has a potential to be darkly funny: this is. The amiably boyish Sam Alexander is Charles Bovary, unsuspicious and devoted, while an irresistible Denis Herdman plays her two lovers, and Alistair Cope wears many hats as – well, basically the rest of provincial 19c France (very convincing when he milks a table as a cow, properly evil as a bailiff). In the midst of the three men is Jennifer Kirby as Emma Bovary: the axle around which they whirl. And what is so brilliant about Marieke Audsley’s direction – and Kirby’s assured, RSC-honed performance – is that poor Emma is played pretty well straight.
That works wonderfully: the book, which profoundly shocked France in 1856, is after all a dark satire on the helplessness of energetic women trapped in an unreasonable male society, stuck with dull unchanging domesticity while being fed romantic ideas in novels and tempted by aspirational consumerism. It is also a study in depression. When Kirby speaks lines like “life is a dark corridor with a locked door at the end” there’s a proper shudder; when she flings herself recklessly at bored lovers, there is good physical comedy because all four are accomplished clowns, but she retains the grim dignity of her plight. The show is laughing at the men, not the woman.
Which is appropriate, given the theme. But one of my favourite things is that it pulls off the classic trick of suddenly, briefly, demonstrating that these are not just comics but actors who could have done it straight, had they chosen to. The old ReducedShakespeare Company used to do that: in the middle of riotous hat-and-prop jokes suddenly deliver “O what a piece of work is Man..” or “Tomorrow and Tomorrow”, to silence the waves of laughter before rapidly stirring it up again. Here the cast finally quarrel among themselves because Emma loses patience and wants the proper tragedy. So movingly – and straight – she and Charles enact her last moments.
But well, can’t keep jokey blokes down, can you? Cue a fine denouement. Go and see for yourself. But book. This early matinee was packed solid.
Box office jermynstreettheatre.co.uk. To 17 december