Edmond Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac is one of those plays that more theatre lovers have heard of than have ever actually seen. Miss this limited-season Royal Shakespeare Company production at the Lyric Theatre, though, and you'll have passed on a rare treat.

The play was first performed almost 100 years to the London opening night of this RSC production of the accessible, modern and literate translation by novelist Anthony Burgess. Set in pre-revolutionary France, it's the tale of a talented, swordsman, poet, wit and leader of men played here by Antony Sher, who has everything going for him - except for the physical deformity of a very long nose.

This external ugliness contrasts with the inner strength and nobility of Rostand s protagonist. Through a convincing twist of fate, Cyrano finds himself ghost-writing love letters to the demanding, intelligent and beautiful Roxane (Alexandra Gilbreath) for de Neuvillette (Raymond Coulthard), a tongue-tied hunk who lacks the wit to woo her himself. Roxane is Cyrano s unrequited love as well, but he's too proud to declare his love for fear of rejection because of his oversized nose.

Just as the original 1899 production was a vehicle for the French actor Coquelin, so this could have been a personal showcase for the athletic Sher. But this is the RSC at the top of its form, operating under director Gregory Doran very much as a company, with some superb ensemble moments backing up Sher's bravura performance.

Two scenes of particular note are surely the best sword fight you're ever likely to see on the modern stage and the rousing, Act II musical number “We Are the Gascony Cadets” set in a Paris pastry shop. Very good entertainment.

In all, this is a night that's by turns exciting, funny, clever, touching and tragic. It was thanks to Cyrano de Bergerac that the French word panache entered common English-language usage. Sher's performance and this excellent RSC company effort will help keep it there for another 100 years at least.

This latest West End engagement of Cyrano de Bergerac follows a highly successful premiere in Stratford and a sell-out UK tour. It s the first collaboration between the RSC and Criterion Productions.

Roger Green, December 1997