Edmond de Bergerac at Richmond Theatre review ****

Edmond de Bergerac

Richmond Theatre, 1st May 2019

Alexis Michalik is a loving looking chap. Oozes Gallic charm. The wunderkind of French theatre. So its good to know he is half-British. He kicked off as an actor but it is his plays, which have run to packed houses in Paris and beyond, and garnered multiple awards (5 Molieres for Edmond), which he directs himself, that have turned him into a star. First Le Porteur d’Histoire, then Le Cercle des Illusionnistes, most recently Intra Muros, which was adapted in English at the Park Theatre recently (though didn’t get great reviews). His most famous play though is Edmond which appeared in 2016, a theatrical paean to the creator of Cyrano de Bergerac, Edmond Rostand, and already made into a film.

Cyrano is the most performed play in the French language. A massive hit when it hit Paris in 1897, a broad fictionalisation of a real life nobleman, novelist, playwright, epistolarian and duelist in C17 France (1619-1655), written entirely in classical alexandrine verse (12 syllables per line) and about the most uplifting love story you are ever likely to see. Apparently the curtain call on the first night went on for over an hour and the French Foreign Minister emerged from the audience to go backstage and pin the Legion D’Honneur on Rostand there and then.

Cyrano regularly gets an airing in British theatres, luvvies love it, usually in Anthony Burgess’s wonderful translation, and you may well know know it from the film adaptations, either the faithful French classic version from 1990 starring Gerard Depardieu and directed by Jean-Paul Rappeneau (there were others before this) or the rather freer 1987 interpretation Roxanne starring Steve Martin and directed by the underrated Aussie director Fred Schepisi.

If it you have never seen a version you are probably aware of Cyrano’s defining feature, to wit, his huge nose. This is what prevents him wooing his beautiful cousin Roxane who he adores. When he befriends the handsome but inarticulate Christian, who also falls for Roxane’s charms, he sees a way to woo her vicariously with his exquisite love poetry. It works, Roxane and Christian are secretly engaged, but there love in turn attracts the wrath of yet another suitor, the Comte de Guiche who sends the lads off to the brutal war with the Spanish. Cyrano, on Christian’s behalf, but unbeknownst to him, writes to Roxane every day though and eventually Roxane comes to the front. She loves the poet and Christian realising the pretence asks Cyrano to confront Roxane and explain. He doesn’t drop his mate in it though, Christian is killed in battle, Cyrano sees off the Spanish.

Over the next 14 years, Cyrano, now a satirist, visits Roxane every day in the convent she has holed up in mourning Christian. Finally, after sustaining a head wound, he arrives late and faints. Roxane asks him to read one of “Christian’s letters” but in the dark he recites in from memory. He dies. Roxane realises her true love. Cue tears. At least for the Tourist (and not in the Steve Martin version). You would have to be made of stone not to get caught up in this.

Now that is actually the film plot, there’s a bit more to the play, but that’s the gist of it. Except, of course, the plot is turned into something transcendent by the verse. Can’t speak French but Anthony Burgess, albeit with what apparently is know as a “sprung” rhythm, is faithful to Rostand’s intention.

It is on the French language curriculum and is regularly revived in France so Alexis Michalik was taking a bit of a risk with his text. a bit like Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman with their script for Shakespeare in Love the 1998 Oscar winning film starring Joseph Fiennes, Gwyneth Paltrow and Judi Dench, directed by John Madden. Like SIL, Edmond, (de Bergerac here to avoid confusion with a David Mamet film), mixes the “real life” business of putting on a play with the plot of the play itself, in this case just the one play though.

Edmond Rostand (here Freddie Fox) is a failing twenty something poet, playwright and dreamer drawing his sorrows in drink with beau monde, womanising mate Leo (Robin Morrissey). Steadfast wife Rosemonde (Sarah Ridgeway) is on his case to provide for her and his two kids. In desperation he pitches an idea to the famous actor Constant Coquelin (Henry Goodman); an heroic comedy, based on the life of Cyrano de Bergerac, for the Christmas slot. Only problem. He hasn’t written anything. Still, the legendary Sarah Bernhardt (Josie Lawrence) believes in Edmond, and the services of diva Maria Legault (Chizzy Akudolu) to star in the play are secured. A couple of wide-boy Corsican producer/gangsters, the Floury brothers, step in with the cash (Nick Cavaliere and Simon Gregor) and, always at the last minute, Edmond delivers his three, then four, then five, act masterpiece.

We meet the prim Georges Feydeau (David Langham), Rostand’s rival and the master of farce, the philosophising Monsieur Honore (Delroy Atkinson) owner of the bar, where, along with the Palais Royal theatre, and the Rostand house, the bulk of the scenes are set, Jean (Harry Kershaw), M. Coquelin’s beloved son, would be pastry chef and terrible actor, and Jeanne (Gina Bramhill), the wardrobe mistress and saviour of the premiere who captures Leo’s heart, aided, of course, by Edmond’s words. Which are, you guessed it, what gets Rostand’s creative juices flowing when to comes to writing the play.

Many of the cast take on multiple other roles, we even meet Maurice Ravel and Anton Chekhov at one point, in the quick-fire and frenetic scenes. Movement director Liam Steel, in this production from the Birmingham Rep does an outstanding job, alongside director Roxana Gilbert in marshalling all this activity. Edmond de Rostand is not pure farce or musical but at times it looks like it. The plot is cleverly constructed, if a bit baggy, drifting in and out of the plot of Cyrano itself, the cast give their all and the set that Robert Innes Hopkins has created is brilliantly versatile allowing the sevens to shift rapidly with no loss of momentum.

I think it may have left some of the Richmond Theatre midweek matinee audience a bit nonplussed but that wouldn’t be the first time. For me, and I hope the audiences at the Birmingham Rep, York Grand Opera House, Royal and Derngate Northampton and Cambridge Arts Theatre where it toured prior to this, it was a delight. It deserves a bigger audience, why not the West End. Fair enough it would help to know a little big about its foundations, less of a problem in France where, as I have said, Cyrano de Bergerac is part of the cultural fabric, and there are occasions where M. Michalik is perhaps overly in love with his creation but for me it was one of the, positive, theatrical surprises of the year so far.

I haven’t seen nearly enough of Roxana Silbert’s work for the Birmingham Rep or, prior to that, Paines Plough. I was taken with Chris Hannan’s What Shadows which came to the Park Theatre, though that had a lot to do with Ian McDiarmid’s complex portrayal of Enoch Powell, and I can thoroughly recommend the Birmingham Rep’s latest co-production with the Rose Kingston, an adaptation of Captain Correlli’s Mandarin. I guess, when Ms Silbert joins the Hampstead Tate as AD I will be able to make a more informed judgement.

I wouldn’t want to single out any one member of the cast of Edmond but, if forced, I would highlight Freddie Fox whose performance is up there with his Tristan Tzara in Tom Stoppard’s Travesties. His default mood is despondency but, as the frazzled nerves give way to a determination to succeed, and the tender affection for Jeanne builds, (don’t worry he doesn’t cheat on Rosemonde in a clever inversion of Cyrano), so we get to see a rounded hero emerge. I am also partial to Delroy Atkinson who was so good in Roy Williams’ The Firm, (still on at Hampstead), though he, like the rest of the players, stays in one dimension. If you know Henry Goodman and Josie Lawrence from other performances you certainly won’t be disappointed.

Now apparently the original Cyrano play was responsible for the word panache finding its way into the English language. M. Michalik aims, and succeeds, in capturing that spirit. I suspect even the master of comic opera translation into English, Jeremy Sams, may have been stretched to the limit in bringing clarity to the chaos here, but, if you just roll with the comic punches, and are in love with theatre, then you really should try to see this should it pop up elsewhere. The show is funny, clever and, in the end, like its inspiration, heart-warming.

The Firm at the Hampstead Theatre review *****

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The Firm

Hampstead Theatre Downstairs, 22nd November 2017

N.B. The Firm is returning to the Hampstead Theatre Downstairs for another run between the 3rd May and 8th June 2019. The Tourist goes to a lot of theatre in London and, trust him, there is no better value than a preview ticket at HTD. Just £5. And here you are taking no risk as it is an excellent play. Even during the main run, at just £14, it is a steal. You’d be a mug to miss this. 

How does the Tourist choose whether to see a play?

Writer first, since he/she is the wellspring from which all else flows. In the end all there is is text, actors and audience. And observers and observed have nothing to share without the text. Poor text, poor play. Nothing anyone else can do about that.

Venue second. A function of convenience and familiarity, but also, not unreasonably, if you have enjoyed one production at a theatre, you may well enjoy another. This will probably reflect the vision of the artistic team and the rather grubbier fact of the demographic the executive team wants to prise cash from. On the downside, there are venues where comfort is so compromised that price does not represent value and must be avoided.

Then there is the subject. Not always easy to divine for new plays from the blurbs, teasers and trailers but something needs to pique my interest. As it happens most new drama has its finger firmly on the pulse or contrives relevance from places or times far removed from my cosy little world.

Director next. Same principle as the writer, if you have enjoyed their way of doing things once you may well do again, though this is not guaranteed.

Reviews of course, but the Tourist’s addiction and simple economics, (why paid 70 quid in the West End when I can get a top seat for half the price or less at the original production at the Royal Court or Almeida), means that reviews only help for transferred in productions.

Cast, relevant but not a deal breaker, though expectations rise when favourite names are announced.

Ideally a number of these factors come together. Sometimes though the Tourist takes a punt. As he did with The Firm. Downstairs at the Hampstead normally serves me well, but this is by no means guaranteed. I was interested in the subject, a gang reunited, but concerned it might lurch into cliche. I knew nothing about the work of playwright Roy Williams, director Denis Lawson or designer Alex Marker. I had not seen any of the cast on stage as far as I could remember (based on their bios), with the exception of Clarence Smith. I would like to pretend I had a feeling but I didn’t. And to cap it all I pushed my just-in-time arrival strategy to the limit. So a quick Jimmy, an inward groan at the 1hr 40mins run time and the only seat left tucked in a far corner (mind you the HT Downstairs benches are comfy).

As it turns out this is an excellent play and probably the biggest surprise of the year for me. Alex Marker’s set transformed the reconfigured Downstairs space into a “sophisticated” urban bar, complete with pristine Wurlitzer juke box and array of aspirational spirits brands. We first encounter the nattily dressed Gus (Clinton Blake) who owns the bar, (and, as we discover, quite a tidy portfolio of assets elsewhere), bantering with Leslie (Jay Simpson), the archetypal (and white) Sarf Londoner who has recently left prison. Gus and Leslie are waiting for Shaun to arrive. A party in his honour is planned followed by a night out on the town and then a trip to the Palace, (Selhurst Park not down the Mall, for regrettably they are Eagles), the next day. Shaun never comes. The rest of the “The Firm” do pitch up though, first stout Trent (Delroy Atkinson) followed by a nervous and limping Selwyn (Clarence Smith). But Selwyn brings a young stranger with him, Fraser (Simon Coombs) who, for various reasons, unsettles the gang. He comes with a proposal.

I’ll stop there. This all sounds way more mysterious than it actually is. This is an absolutely riveting insight into the nature of manhood, the camaraderie of criminality, the value of loyalties, the meaning of success and the trials of friendship. These forty/fifty somethings were happiest in the past, right the way back to when they first embarked on their “life of crime”, by The Wall near their school. The pace at which Roy Williams releases the many revelations that show who the characters are, and what they have become, is perfect. We learn enough, but not too much, to keep the dramatic intensity on the boil. We see the damage the past has done and we witness the final break-up of the gang. We see the love and the jealousy the mates have. There is a Pinteresque threat of violence and malice as you might expect throughout, most notably from Gus, who was the leader of the gang, and who is the only one to have avoided a stretch inside. He probes and manipulates the others, until they begin, in their various ways to fight back.

It is also very funny. The dialogue is utterly believable, the banter is spot on. The interplay between the cast is superb. Clinton Blake’s Gus is preening bully, but it is clear from the off that he is troubled. Jay Simpson excels as Leslie, the mediator and the joker, who is trying to start again. (If anyone is ever looking for a Joe Strummer in a play about the Clash here’s you man). Delroy Atkinson as Trent, at first submissive, gradually asserts himself and, in a very powerful scene, shows himself as the only one of the gang capable of pacifying the psychologically damaged, and desperate, Selwyn of Clarence Smith. Simon Coombs as “younger” Fraser is insolent and cocky, but, in a neat inversion, shows some maturity that escapes the others. His final scene with a defeated Gus is gripping.

The play offers no moral perspective on gang membership. It does make abundantly clear though that for men of current, this and proceeding generations, in the absence of other opportunities, this way of life, and the crime that comes with it, is the clearest path to securing the validation and respect of others. It also shows how fragile this respect can turn out to me and how poor men are in admitting, articulating and coping with their frailties and failings.

I may be guilty of reading too much into the play but that is what I saw. I highly recommend it. Roy Williams actually references Goodfellas and West Side Story in the dialogue to remind us of other masterful portrayals of this subject. Don’t get me wrong: this isn’t Goodfellas, but in its own way it is similarly involving. I understand that Mr Williams has mined issues of race, sport, poverty, random violence and teen parenthood in previous works, as well as the father/son relationship in Soul, his last play about the death of Marvyn Gaye. I really hope I get an opportunity to see some of them. He really, really has the measure of his stories and characters.