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 Cherry Orchard at Milton Court Theatre review ***

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The Cherry Orchard

Milton Court Theatre, 17th October 2017

I have remarked before on the attractions of the Guildhall School final year productions. Lovely venue, clear interpretations which eschew directorial licence, and the chance to see some potential future stars of stage and screen.

I must say these students are an extraordinarily attractive bunch. I guess an acting factory isn’t that interested in churning out fat uglies like yours truly. Shame since people are a diverse lot. As our leading British thespians bear witness too. This also highlights the other caveat which I would raise about these productions. Obviously if everyone on stage is in their twenties those tasked with playing the more mature characters are presented with a challenge that the age appropriate characters are spared. I have to say though that overall, the entire cast performed admirably, especially in the second half, though for me the standout performances came from Georgina Beedle as Madame Lyubov Andreievna Ranevskaya and Mhairi Gayer as Anya.

The Chekhovian symphony always takes a little time to build as we embrace the characters, both in terms of their individual psychologies, and what they stand for in pre-Revolution Russian society. Director Christian Burgess let each of the actors find their voices without rushing things, which softened some of the slightly uneven casting. This was Tom Stoppard’s translation. Since Chekhov pervades a great deal of his own work it is no surprise that it hits the spot. Any playwright worth his or her salt will take a shot at adapting Chekhov but some are more sympathetic than others. This production (designed by Polly Sullivan) was as historically specific as it is possible to get – ushankas, birch trees, even a samovar I think. A complete contrast to the current Sherman Theatre interpretation from Gary Owen and Rachel O’Riordan which sounds terrific. I see too that Mike Bartlett is not averse to infusing his latest (great) play Albion with the spirit of the Cherry Orchard, both directly in terms of plot and also through the character of Audrey Walters, (Victoria Hamilton turns in one of the best performances of the year – just see it).

For of course there are always plenty of themes in Chekhov’s plays that resonate with today’s world. That is generally because there is just a lot in Chekhov’s plays full stop. Regret about an imagined past is a powerful driver of society in the present and that applies throughout human written history (I may have made that up but you get the point). These regrets and disappointments are played out through the personal, and always with a wry humour in the background.

Overall then a fine production. Not the best you will ever see, but that is unsurprising. And the two actors I mention above have a bright future ahead of them. Mind you, what do I know.

The Real Thing at the Rose Theatre Kingston review ****

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The Real Thing

Rose Theatre Kingston, 10th October 2017

Thinking cap donned it’s a short hop to the Rose for the next leg in my Stoppard education. And what a fine lesson this production, (shared with the Theatre Royal Bath and Cambridge Arts Theatre), tuned out to be. Once director Stephen Unwin, (a great friend of the Rose from his tenure up to 2014), and his fine cast got into the swing of things the dexterity of Mr Stoppard’s fabrication was revealed in all its glory.

Fabrication of course being the key word since there is an awful lot of artifice on show here. First performed in 1982 this is a play about life imitating art through the fabric of love, marriage and infidelity. It was instructive to see this production the day after the new Seagull at the Lyric Hammersmith as Chekhov deals with similar themes and is TS’s inspiration. Given TS’s mighty brain I suspect the parallels are not co-incidental. That’s the thing with Stoppard. The more you think about it the more there is to think about. I sometimes wish I had a magical pause button when watching TS plays so I can just stop and soak in all the rich layers.

The action kicks off in the tastefully furnished home of architect Max and Charlotte (a perfect pitched set from designer Jonathan Fensom). Charlotte has just returned from a business jaunt. Max accuses her of adultery. Charlotte flounces out. We see Charlotte again but now she is married to playwright Henry. Turns out the previous scene was the play within a play from the pen of Henry. Called House of Cards. Doh. The real Charlotte is not best pleased with the lines given to the character Charlotte. Then the real Max (yep, you got it, he is called Max) turns up with actor wife Annie. Henry needles Annie about her involvement with cause celebre Brodie, a soldier imprisoned for protesting. Turns out though that this an act as we discover Henry and Annie are having an affair. The affair is subsequently revealed, Annie leaves Max for Henry. Henry tries to capture his feelings for Annie in a script. Act 2 and we move on a couple of years. Annie wants Henry to ghost write Brodie’s play. Henry thinks this work is awful. Annie gets cast in Tis Pity She’s a Whore. Henry visits Charlotte and daughter Debbie, who has some pointed views on monogamy. Annie has an affair with young actor Billy though this may again be a rehearsal. Henry’s jealousy spills over. Brodie pitches up and it turns out he is a dickhead but mimics Henry’s own arrogance. He leaves and we end with news of Max’s new marriage.

The play has a hefty dose of autobiography and it is not difficult to see TS himself in the character of Henry, notably in the monologue about the exactness of prose, which is a classic, and in the questioning of the politics of the left. Henry is a massive intellectual snob and a dreadful pedant. The dissection of the business of acting, and the playful structure of the drama with its echoes and returns, is so elegant it takes your breathe away. But what I found most fascinating here was the exploration of doubt in the context of love and fidelity. Nothing new about that but the way TS keeps probing Henry’s own vulnerabilities is what makes this play special and is what makes it a much more “direct” watch than some of TS’s other smartarse plays. Within this elegant fabrication of words and plot there is are real people bursting with contradictions. You might not like him, and you may find his cerebral (mandatory word in all TS reviews) elitism suffocating, but you can definitely see where Henry is coming from.

Aim high. Don’t mix up the person with his or her art. Don’t abandon the romantic ideal. Beware of politics in art. Think about how people “see” you and how people “see” themselves. These are just a few of the things I got to musing on during and after the performance. I just don’t know how TS manages to pack this much in yet still provide an entertaining, and of course, very funny story.

As you might have surmised this is only going to work if the actor playing Henry is up to the task. Laurence Fox indubitably was. It seems to me there needs to be the right length of pause before Henry delivers his inevitable “last word” in each conversation as his brain runs through the possibilities. Mr Fox seemed to get this and expressed Henry’s faint incomprehension of those around him. Adam Jackson-Smith’s Max was suitably colourless. Rebecca Johnson as Charlotte and, especially, Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Annie were both impressive in the way they captured the women’s brisk efficiency of life and love in the face of Henry’s self-absorption. Santino Smith as Brodie and Kit Young as Billy were spot on with the few lines they had and I will look out for Venice van Someren, who played daughter Debbie, in future productions.

My guess is that even with all of the art that TS serves up to a director it is still possible to make a pig’s ear of this play. Thankfully Stephen Unwin and his colleagues manufactured a silk purse. Another great evening in the company of Mr Stoppard.

 

 

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead at the Old Vic review ****

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Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

The Old Vic Theatre, 27th March 2017

Sorry I have come a bit late to the party here both in seeing this and then setting down a few thoughts. I am still a Stoppard virgin so you must treat me gently and this is the first time I have seen this.

So how did I fare? Well much like Travesties a few weeks earlier I was left breathless and in awe of Mr Stoppard’s dazzling intellect and wit. I reckon a few more of his plays and a few more years and I might crack this but for now baby steps. When this came on to the scene 50 years ago it must have been a revelation for its early audiences. My near contemporary arrival in the world left less of a mark – still my mum was probably pleased to see me.

To interrogate the nature of how we see events and construct meaning, to question the role of chance, to ask why we make the choices that we do and to examine notions of free will and mortality, and to do this in the context of a play itself that is genuinely full of laughs (not just knowing sniggers) and a plot of sorts that moves forward, and is based on possibly the most famous play ever which itself deals with not dissimilar questions – it’s a miracle of sorts that the whole thing doesn’t just collapse under its own contradictions and ambition.

Now that doesn’t mean there weren’t a few “whoosh over the head” moments for me and it can be hard work to keep up even with the Hamletian anchor. Stoppard properly f*cks about with your head. But for me it yields a theatrical pleasure from all the hard work that is not replicated elsewhere. To think perchance to laugh.

I can’t imagine any improvements to David Leveaux’s production and Daniel Radcliffe and Joshua McGuire seem a perfect match as our hapless heroes. McGuire in particular, who carries more than I realised of the text, is very strong and you can practically hear his brain whirring through the gears as tries to solve the puzzles that he and his chum have to face. And David Haig, who teetered perilously close to annoying in Blue/Orange at the Young Vic with his singular bluster, was just right I think as the Player.

So whilst I may have started with an air of cultural obligation in seeing these two Stoppard plays in recent weeks I come out persuaded and look forward to the next adventure. If you agree, all well and good but if you don’t I completely understand. It might pass the Pete and Bernie’s Philosophical SteakHouse pretension test for me – but I suspect there are a whole bunch of people who secretly hold fast to an “emperor’s new clothes” view and I can see why.

Still packed houses at the Old Vic for properly ambitious theatre must be a good thing. Next up Woyzeck.

 

 

 

 

Travesties at the Apollo Theatre review ****

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Travesties

Apollo Theatre, 13th March 2017

Right then. I clearly have to up my game. The more theatre I see the better I am at appreciating, understanding and enjoying. This is particularly the case with the great playwrights. With Will Shakespeare given a half decent director and cast I can now follow the plot, hear almost all the language and grasp, albeit in a rudimentary fashion, the dilemmas and tribulations that are presented to the characters. Until the last couple of years I freely admit it was enough just to keep up with what was going on and I was often bored. All my fault.

Elsewhere I have had some revelatory Greek experiences (not sure that came out exactly as intended), Ibsen and especially Chekhov are falling into place and the Americans, O’Neill, Williams, Miller and Albee, are all firmly on the go to list.

As for the great Britons well I am finally seeing that there is more to Pinter that menace and now I understand why Caryl Churchill is perfect in terms of form and content. And of course for we live right now in a golden age for new British theatre which only a numpty would ignore.

However, Stoppard until now has been a mystery. I have not knowingly seen any Stoppard plays in the dim and distant past though as we know (and delightfully Travesties reminds us) memory is an active construct of the present so I could be wrong. Likely though Travesties was my first ever. Obviously bonkers good reviews from the Menier Chocolate Factory run and the fella Hollander drew me in as well as the ubiquitous Patrick Marber directing (in order I would say the draw here being Marber’s previous directing assignments followed by the Partridge connection rather than his plays which I confess I need to see).

In short Tom Hollander plays Henry Carr some minor British consul type who apparently got into a dispute with James Joyce over payment connected with a performance of The Importance of Being Earnest in Zurich in 1917 where Carr played Algernon. Carr is looking back so a kind of imperfect and comedic “memory play’ is brought to bear. From this Stoppard elides Carr’s interactions with Joyce as well as Lenin and Tristan Tzara (one of the founders of Dada) as well Carr’s butler Bennett, Lenin’s wife (I think) and Cecily and Gwendolen characters. Carr and Bennett I gather are characters in Ulysses (of which I am still massively intimidated so have never read or am likely to read I confess).

So how did I fare? Well I thought I had put some hours in having delved into the history of modernism in C20 culture and with a bit of past, and more recent, boning up on Marxism. But I failed to follow vast chunks of Stoppard’s dazzling brain and wit. I can get the plot crossover into the Importance of Being Earnest (thanks mostly to the 2002 film with Everett, Firth, Witherspoon, Dench etc and the Gerald Barry opera which is a must see should it be revived again). But so much of the direct references to the life and works of Lenin, Joyce and Tzara passed me by. (Mind you I can recommend the Soviet Art exhibition at the Royal Academy for an insight into the rise of Lenin and how he shaped art and literature post the Revolution).

Still all the erudition on show does remind you just how important this time was to the formation of ideas in politics, art and literature and how those ideas have (or in many cases have not) filtered through into later decades. I guess some of the debates on the relationship between art and society, capitalism vs socialism and literary form which are aired in the play were more lively in the late 1960s and early 1970s (Travesties was written in 1974) but I still think there was much to feast on here. I just need to work out what.

But no matter it still made me chuckle where I did get it (Tzara whizzing through the inaugural night at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, Lenin setting out the correct march through socialism to communism, the p*ss takes on street guides to Dublin) and the zip of the whole thing just carries you along. There were multiple shifts in the form and structure of the play which I thoroughly enjoyed such as a scene entirely in limericks, replays as Carr sees events in different ways, lots of punning, music hall parodies, doors opening/closing in a quasi farcical way as well as verbal sparring generally between Carr and the three main characters as well as moving monologues from Carr on the waste of the First World War.

So if you limber up beforehand with a bit of Wiki action, look at the interview in the programme between Marber and Stoppard (obviously I left this until after – doh) and take it easy on all the brain food on offer here then an enjoyable night is on the cards. Tom Hollander’s ability to capture the bemusement and snarkeyness of the British toff anchors the whole thing and the tone of the other characters was ideal. Freddie Fox as Tzara/Jack/Earnest puts a shift in physically, Forbes Masson as Lenin has a bit less to play with but captures it very well and Peter McDonald as Joyce gets to be Stoppard’s favourite methinks (both in terms of his art and as Lady Bracknell). I especially loved Amy Morgan and Clare Foster in the “no I’m engaged to him” parody bit.

Having said that it is, even with a decent pitch in the stalls, a ridiculously uncomfortable theatre for a big unit like me so beware.

But note to self. Put more effort in for the next Stoppard play.