James McAvoy Plays Cyrano de Bergerac With Hard-Nosed Panache At Playhouse Theatre

Cyrano de Bergerac, Playhouse Theatre ★★★★☆

By Neil Dowden Last edited 50 months ago

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James McAvoy Plays Cyrano de Bergerac With Hard-Nosed Panache At Playhouse Theatre Cyrano de Bergerac, Playhouse Theatre 4
Photo: Marc Brenner

Edmond Rostand's 1897 tragicomic verse romance Cyrano de Bergerac is a legendary account of the eponymous 17th-century poet-soldier. But this new, radical reinterpretation — freely adapted by Martin Crimp and directed with innovative brilliance by Jamie Lloyd — drags the old warhorse into the contemporary world.

Though still set in its historical era, Crimp’s cleverly colloquial rhyming is full of expletives, often in the style of rap, while Lloyd’s modern-dress, diversely-cast production strips away the traditional period trappings. Soutra Gilmour’s minimalist design with its red plastic chairs and mirror suggests a rehearsal studio in which the performers jam.

Photo: Marc Brenner

The essence of the story is still there, with all its passion, humour and pathos. Cyrano, in love with his cousin Roxane but feeling he is not attractive to women because of his supersized nose, agrees to help the handsome but inarticulate Christian woo her by writing love poems on his behalf.

Strangely, though, in this show — despite the numerous bantering references to his salient feature — Cyrano’s nose is normal, not to mention being on the face of film star James McAvoy. It’s a bit like having a straight-backed Richard III: without the physical abnormality, the character’s behaviour is unexplained. The idea seems to be that low self-esteem is an internal feeling, not dependent on outer appearance.

Photo: Marc Brenner

There are no swords on display here either, in a production where protagonists duel with words rather than weapons. Microphones are to the fore in contests that resemble poetry slams, with rapping and beatboxing giving a hip-hop feel. This is very much a post-Hamilton show that lets spoken word do the magic.

Photo: Marc Brenner

In a notably physical and charismatic performance, McAvoy is a fiery Cyrano, spoiling for a fight but longing for love, stabbing his enemies with witty put-downs. Anita-Joy Uwajeh’s feisty, sharp-tongued Roxane is far from the usual passive female prize, while Eben Figueiredo’s cocky Christian is no dumb macho stereotype with an awakening attraction towards Cyrano. Like the hero’s verbal fencing, the show is a palpable hit.

Cyrano de Bergerac, Playhouse Theatre, Northumberland Avenue, WC2N 5DE.  Tickets £15–£77.50, until 29 February 2020.

Last Updated 11 December 2019