Art imitates life and life imitates art in Alexis Michalik’s fictionalised account of how Edmond Rostand wrote Cyrano de Bergerac.
The hapless playwright attempts to woo a woman for his best mate, only to find himself increasingly embroiled in escalating back-and-forth messes on stage and off.
Set in 1890s Paris, Rostand is suffering from a two-year-long period of writer’s block. Despite the backing of Sarah Bernhardt (performed by an amusingly flamboyant Josie Lawrence), his plays and poetry are critical flops. Worse still, his entire rhyming style is seen as outmoded. While wondering what to do next, he becomes the ghost writer of a series of love letters to Jeanne (Gina Bramhill) on behalf of the poetically-challenged Leo (Robin Morrissey).
As the real-life Cyrano, Edmond’s problem isn’t a massive schnoz but hand-wringing social awkwardness. Freddie Fox plays him as an endearing but wilting chap, one who orders a camomile tea in the Moulin Rouge while everyone else downs a couple of absinthes.
The natural charm Fox so often brings to his performances is still detectable, even when deliberately playing up the character’s gawkiness, and he makes a sweetly comic double-act with Morrissey’s happy-go-lucky Leo.
Michalik’s play, receiving its UK premiere in a new translation by Jeremy Sams, is perhaps best understood as a love letter to theatre. It’s filled with meta-jokes about the vanities of actors, the struggles of staging a play with limited rehearsal time and the insecurities of wages – especially for the beleaguered orchestra. These are entertaining, but do become somewhat repetitive.
Designer Robert Innes Hopkins has a lot of fun with the fin-de-siecle setting, giving the movable set a slightly down-at-heal saloon edge. There’s also a strong performance from Sarah Ridgeway as Edmond’s exasperated wife Rosemonde. Yet Roxana Silbert’s production never quite crackles to life the way it should. It never really lets loose and laugh are limited.
Perhaps something has got lost in translation, with Michalik’s original success relying on an appreciation of specifically French theatre history and its heroes. Certainly, it’s on the long side and the later play-within-a-play scenes of Cyrano de Bergerac being staged would benefit from a trim.
Edmond’s late exposition about wanting a muse not a lover never really convinces and, although much more could probably be made of the Parisian theatrical setting in terms of song and dance, the few scenes involving giggling prostitutes in feather boas feel a bit dated and – sorry – on the nose.