Edmond de Bergerac – The HOUSE, Birmingham REP

Writer: Alexis Michalik, translated by Jeremy Sams

Director: Roxana Silbert

Reviewer: Dave Smith

Most people know the story of Cyrano de Bergerac, probably the most celebrated play in the French language. Written in rhyming couplets, it’s about how the physically unappealing Cyrano (he has a very big nose) helps a friend’s love life by writing his romantic letters for him, demonstrating in the process that beauty is, of course, far more than skin deep. That play was written by Edmond Rostand, and this play imagines a back story to his writing of Cyrano.

The romantic and poetic playwright Edmond (Freddie Fox) is suffering from a bad case of writer’s block after the failure of his latest work. When his attractive but slightly dim friend Leo (Robin Morrissey) falls in love with the romantic and poetic Jeanne (Gina Bramhill), but has no idea how to appeal to her finer nature, Edmond first feeds him appropriately poetic and romantic lines to woo her from beneath a balcony, before taking it upon himself to start writing her love letters as if they were from Leo. Then he gets a brilliant idea for a new play… With a cast including one acting legend in Coquelin (Henry Goodman) and the support of another in Sarah Bernhardt (Josie Lawrence), all seems set for Edmond to finally find his mojo.

Edmond de Bergerac has already been a massive hit in France, with over 700 performances, five Molière awards and a big screen adaptation to follow. Now it appears for the first time in the UK courtesy of this translation by Jeremy Sams. But has it crossed the Channel with more success than Theresa May?

If you were feeling generous, you might call this a homage to Cyrano de Bergerac. In fact, at the very least, it would be better described as homage plus plus. Not only does it, to put it politely, borrow its story liberally from the original play, it also actually includes a good 15 or 20 minutes of it during the first-night performance. Perhaps the ‘play within a play/film’ concept has now been finally done to death, as there are also very strong hints of ideas from Shakespeare in Love, Moulin Rouge and Noises Off. At least.

Edmond’s wife wanders on and off stage occasionally looking miserable. Two irritating mockney financier brothers, hackneyed beyond comparison, foist the woman they’ve both had an affair with, and whose son they both believe they fathered, onto the production in the role of Roxane. Coquelin insists on his son having a role, even though his son wants to be a pastry chef rather than an actor. A hotel receptionist does an outrageous French accent taken straight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Somewhere along the line Ravel, Stanislavsky and Anton Chekov also make random appearances.

Unfortunately, the problems do not end with the script. Director Roxana Silbert has made some poor choices, not least in the casting of Maria, but perhaps in also allowing the ensemble cast to ham it up to a point well beyond where it should have been put to a stop.

It’s not entirely without merit. On its own, and in isolation, it is quite entertaining at times and there are some decent jokes in there. Josie Lawrence (who, as an older actress, also fits in a good impression of Julie Walters in a Victoria Wood sketch) and Henry Goodman can do this sort of thing in their sleep (thankfully they don’t), Freddie Fox is nice enough as Edmond and Robin Morrissey demonstrates a promising talent for physical comedy.

But none of that makes up for the stunning lack of originality and in the end, you can’t help wondering why anyone bothered.

Runs Until 30 March 2019 and on tour  | Image: Graeme Braidwood

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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