Cyrano de Bergerac
Edmond Rostand, adapted by Ranjit Bolt
Black and White Rainbow
White Bear Theatre
Review by Howard Loxton
A grand romantic play from the end of the nineteenth century with a huge cast and a setting that ranges from a seventeenth century theatre to a battlefield, a pastrycook's to a convent garden - how do you cram that into a fifty-seater fringe theatre? In this case, as directed by Simon Evans, very well. Originally announced as an in-the-round production he has scrapped that idea (the duels too dangerous perhaps?) but retained at least one idea that perhaps stemmed from it.
Director and designer Kate Matthews have wisely not gone for scenery: grey drapes against the wall provide the background. There are some difficult to read placards hanging on the wall that seem to name locations but they are all up at the same time, I was unaware of them being made use of and they are removed fairly early on, but they seem to be the only serious mistake.
With its swashbuckling plot you have to play this tale of the poet swordsman with the enormous conk as period but the style here is straight out of the dressing up box. That allows them to dress Roxane, cousin of big-nosed Cyrano with whom both he and handsome cadet Christian are in love, for character rather then historical accuracy. Iris Robert's Roxane has a twenties bob and her skirts bunch back into a bustle and reveal her legs and knickers. That match the somewhat flirty flapper she reveals as one side of her character to balance the bluestocking young woman who gets drunk on words.
There is not much point in going to this play if you don't love language for it is all about words, wit and poetry. The plot, Cyrano wooing the girl he loves on behalf of someone else and, too late, discovering he could have had her for himself despite his looks, might stand up on its own but it is the language which makes this play such a pleasure. I loved Bolt's version with its heavily rhymed couplets that replace French alexandrines with English pentameter. It was first staged at Bristol Old Vic in 2007 and this is its first London outing.
Gwilym Lloyd's Cyrano is a delight. His fine voice makes the verse flow as though it is his own and he gives a warmth to the characterisation that puts the audience entirely in his hands. This de Bergerac is perhaps a touch too gentle, too easily controlling his temper when Christian starts bandying insults, but that fits in a production which puts the emphasis on comedy. When Roxane turns up with burgundy and beef to feed the starving cadets at the battle with the Spaniards it is no surprise, just what you might expect.
Philip Scott-Wallace, as pin-up Christian, is not drop-dead gorgeous, and rather than a handsome airhead, plays him as someone with a more earthy attraction, a not-too-bright country boy, which makes Cyrano's situation even more poignant
Evans opens the play with a flurry of movement and keeps up the momentum. There are times when you feel that this is going to turn into a feel-good musical. It begins to don the mask of tragedy not with Christian's death but with the torture that Lloyd shows Cyrano going through at not being able to declare his love.
Most daringly, in the night-time scene where Cyrano gives a poetic voice to Christian's courtship of Roxane, instead of hiding him and his proboscis in the shadows with Roxane above at an upper window, he brings the whole action centre stage, an arrangement which may indeed have been conceived for playing in the round. With all three on and around a bench, Roxane is blindfolded and contact is intimate. It is an enormous risk and quite implausible, Roxane knows her cousin and his nose to well, but nevertheless it works.
Sam Donnelly is an elegant De Guiche, perhaps a little too nice for us to take him seriously as an evil would-be seducer: it seems quite right that he turns out to be a good fellow Gascon in the end. There is strong support from Cyrano's fellows, especially Ben Higgins' warm and likeable poetic pastrycook Rageneau and David Mildon's Le Bret, and this is very much a company working as an ensemble. Although, inevitably, the title character dominates, it is Cyrano, not the actor, who hogs the limelight.
A final mention for Jonathan Leverett, the fight arranger, who has done a splendid job in this tight space to make sure the audience don't get skewered. I am sure he's made it safe but excitingly it doesn't feel it!
Runs until 4th September 2010