As I started to write my latest play review I began to reflect on just why so many writers tackled the subject of the business of putting on a piece of drama. Inevitably writers will gravitate to the world they most often inhabit and about which they can speak with a degree of authority whether that be professionally, publically or privately (sci-fi is perhaps an honourable exception which proves the general rule). I soon had a shortlist of such plays buzzing round my head – see below – and to which, after further consideration, I would now add Ayckbourn’s A Chorus of Disapproval, Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound, Bennett’s The Habit of Art and Sheridan’s The Critic. Now apart from being all about the theatrical world, the other thing all the examples have in common is that they have been big successes. So I guess that just goes to prove the adage that good writers tend to write best about something they know or have experienced. Anyway, here’s the review:
A play about the writing and staging of a play has always been part of a popular genre – Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Producers, A Chorus Line, The Dresser, All About Eve and (granddaddy of them all) Noises Off all visit this territory. So is there room for another? On the evidence of Alexis Michalik’s Edmond de Bergerac, currently playing at the Richmond Theatre, there certainly is.
Michalik’s play tells the tale of the gestation and first production of Edmond Rostand’s classic Cyrano de Bergerac in the last decade of the nineteenth century. It was written under intense pressure, rehearsed under less than ideal conditions and performed, against all the odds triumphantly on its opening night, and consistently ever since. Like Rostand’s original play, Michalik’s, in translation by Jeremy Sams, uses high comedy, low farce, pathos and real drama to tell its tale, though the emphasis is firmly on the former rather than the latter pair. The penurious poet Edmond Rostand (Freddie Fox) finds inspiration for his creation in the real life situations in which he finds himself – principally that of wooing Jeanne (Gina Bramhill) by proxy for his best friend Léo (Robin Morrissey). As Cyrano does with Roxanne, so Edmond falls for Jeanne – art imitates real life and the two begin to blur – hence the mash up of the play’s title.
As the harassed Rostand, Freddie Fox couldn’t have been better at conveying the nervous energy, the moments of penniless despair and, ultimately, the triumphant debut of his creation. Like the central figure of any good farce, events kept conspiring to undermine him and Fox’s reactions were a pleasure to watch. There were a couple of brief moments where his, otherwise, impeccable comic timing seemed to elude him, but his was generally a performance to savour.
No such accusation could be levelled at Henry Goodman playing the renowned French actor and creator of the role of Cyrano, “Cocky” Coquelin. His comic timing and reactions were a pure masterclass and driven by his own desperations (money troubles, the compulsion to perform) Coquelin was comprehensively bought to life. Goodman is an actor who seems to be able to turn his hand to anything and never gives a poor performance. He was in his element here, especially towards the finale of the play when recreating some of the key moments of Cyrano. As far as I can see from the programme notes Goodman has not played the hero of Rostand’s play – he really should…casting directors take note!
Josie Lawrence’s turn as theatrical legend of the day, Sarah Bernhardt, was appropriately magisterial. She also played several other minor characters; these were carried out with comprehensive skill but in general I felt the production seriously underused her considerable talents. Chizzy Akudolu, however, was very good value as diva Maria who gets her comeuppance in a heavily telegraphed fall from grace allowing for that standard showbiz cliché of the understudy going on stage and winning the day.
The ensemble was universally excellent playing a multitude of roles and pulling them off with aplomb. A special mention goes to Simon Gregor variously and hilariously playing a gangsterish financial backer, an extremely camp wardrobe master and best of all an outrageously “French” (shades of Clouseau) hotel receptionist. This latter scene, which started the second half, was one of the best as the action descended into pure door-slamming, trouser-dropping farce reminiscent of Feydeau; appropriate really as the master farceur himself turned up as a hotel guest. This was one of the incidental joys of the piece as various real life figures found themselves immersed in the action. Aside from the aforementioned, Bernhardt, Coquelin and Feydeau there were also appearances by Ravel, Lumière, Mèliès and even Anton Chekov.
Director Roxana Silbert, movement director Liam Steel and fight director John Sandeman kept the action cracking along at a swift pace. The whole piece used many physical theatre techniques which retained interest; particularly clever was the recreation of a Parisian steam train. There were lots of short scenes, changes of location and cutting reminiscent of film editing, necessitating a set which could be used fluidly and changed swiftly. Designer Robert Innes Hopkins comprehensively provided this, aided and abetted by excellent lighting and sound design (Rick Fisher and Dan Hoole respectively) and the inventive foley effects conjured up by Ruth Sullivan.
This was a solid well-paced production, perhaps a little overlong and in the closing stages rather too reliant on the Rostand original. That aside it was lively, never less than engaging and a more than worthy addition to the genre of works about “the business we call show”. My only real surprise was that one essential element did not appear until about twenty minutes before the end – surely Cyrano’s (in)famous nose should have featured more prominently (!!)*
Maybe the other reason that plays about plays tend to be successful is because the cast and creatives can have such wonderful fun at the expense of their colleagues and this coveys itself to the audience. If as an actor you have met an overbearing director or a divaish actor or a misanthropic stage manager it must be hugely satisfying to take some revenge by portraying their foibles for all the world to see – even if you are actually the only one that knows what you are up to. I have to confess at this stage that some aspects of my Bottom from a few years ago were based on other amateur actors I had encountered over the years. Yes, it can now be told, the attention seeking desire to play all the roles, the refusal to accept direction, the bombastic delivery, the upstaging, the mugging – they were all somebody else – not me at all!