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Cyrano de Bergerac review at Southwark Playhouse, London – ‘amiable but underpowered’

A scene from Cyrano de Bergerac. Photo: Richard Lakos

Kathryn Hunter’s body is an instrument. Though she’s tiny, there’s something gravitational about her: she’s impossible not to watch. She’s made a career of playing characters older than herself and other than herself. She was convincingly simian in Walter Meierjohann’s production of Kafka’s Monkey, and she’s played male before, many times: King Lear in the 1990s, Richard III at Shakespeare’s Globe in 2003, a salaryman in Hideki Noda’s play The Bee, at Soho Theatre in 2006. While UK theatre is experimenting with gender-neutral casting in increasingly exciting ways at the moment, this is par for the course for Hunter. She slides into the title role of Edmond Rostand’s play with gleeful ease.

Her Cyrano, liquorice-limbed and faintly bird-like, might have sprung from the minds of the Chapman Brothers. With a schnozz like a malformed carrot and a body like a collection of punctuation marks, all commas and apostrophes, she’s the most eye-catching thing on stage by a long way in Russell Bolam’s otherwise underpowered all-female production.

Glyn Maxwell’s adaptation has the women in Roxane’s convent retelling the story that brought her to their doors. They swap their headscarves for the capes of Gascon cadets and use lengths of bamboo as swords and pistols. Beyond that there’s not much sense that ideas of gender and performance are being interrogated here. It’s a neat framing device, but little more. The whole production instead hinges on Hunter’s charisma, which fortunately she has in abundance. Sabrina Bartlett’s Roxane is sweet enough, and Tamsin Griffin is amusingly brash and arrogant as De Guiche, but of the rest of the cast only Ellie Kendrick’s good-natured and open-faced Christian feels complete as a character.

There are some charming individual moments here – the handing out of madeleines at the beginning chief among them (it’s hard not to be charmed by free cake). The scene in which Cyrano verbally parries with the man foolish enough to make a disparaging comment about his proboscis is also nicely played, as is the balcony scene in which Cyrano helps Christian woo Roxane, feeding him the words with which to win her.

But the emotional potency of the material feels unexploited and the production feels rather scrappy and baggy. Anthony Lamble’s fairy-lit set feels similarly knocked-together, an oddly industrial wooden backdrop in which windows have been cut, and while there’s a gentleness and warmth to the show, were it not for the presence of Hunter – and, to an extent, Kendrick – there wouldn’t be much to it. There’s such sweet sadness in Rostand’s play but this production doesn’t tap it. It’s amiable enough, it whistles prettily, but it never makes your throat tighten or your heart ache.

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Amiable but emotionally underpowered all-female production enlivened by a charismatic central performance