Cyrano de Bergerac review – James McAvoy is back at his best in this rhapsodic and muscular revival

The show is in the West End before heading to Glasgow

Evelyn Miller (Roxane) and James McAvoy (Cyrano de Bergerac)
Evelyn Miller (Roxane) and James McAvoy (Cyrano de Bergerac)
© Marc Brenner

Reviewing a show that's already received critical clamour, top-notch notices from the best writers in the business, a box office smash NT Live event and a raft of awards is in some ways tricky – how do you say something new and fresh about a production that's had all forms of adulation thrown at it? At the same time, it's a chance to carry on a conversation that many thought was finished – and to re-examine a stellar production in these new, often unrecognisable circumstances.

Returning over two years after it first premiered at the Playhouse Theatre – a space now also relatively unrecognisable following the its transformation for the ongoing run of Cabaret – Jamie Lloyd's staging of Edmund Rostand's famous tale about a tragic swordsman with an extravagantly-sized nose has benefitted in some ways from the fact that, given the pandemic, few large scale productions have had a concerted chance to consign it to orthodoxy. Everything feels fresh, fun and bristling with individuality – from the diverse cast through to the way in which the vintage French classic exists both in its 17th century context while echoing the present day.

Martin Crimp who, back in 2019, was putting the mild car crash of the Cate Blanchett National Theatre show behind him, has taken Rostand's original text and sprints with dazzling cheek – layers of humour blotted against a melancholy backdrop. In short, the story follows an adept soldier, as sharp with his tongue as with his blade, hamstrung by a notoriously lengthy nose. He watches, therefore, as a young cadet, Christian, woos Roxane, the woman (and first cousin!) he's secretly been in love with – going so far as to help the lad write luscious prose displaying his affection. Oh, and there's a war on, so things are pretty hairy at the same time. It's romantic, rip-roaring, riveting stuff.

What Lloyd creates, as he has regularly done of late, is a stage of semiotics – where the playful relationship between symbols and significance is contorted to a point of near-destruction. What makes a body standing on a set no more than a memory – incorporeal and absent? How can a pitch-black auditorium represent the roaring light of cannons, when the stark white of a marble wall (design courtesy of long-time Lloyd collaborator Soutra Gilmour) can be the most intimate darkness? When is a shouted word clearly a near-mortal blow from a sharpened blade?

Evelyn Miller (Roxane) and Eben Figueiredo (Christian)
Evelyn Miller (Roxane) and Eben Figueiredo (Christian)
© Marc Brenner

Lloyd builds his shows on an unshakeable assumption that wherever he goes, audiences will follow. A hyper-choreographed stroll across a bleacher, accompanied by burst balloons, can represent bloodthirsty political wrangling in Argentina. Three bodies revolving around one another can capture a fraught romantic triangle. De Sausssure, le père de linguistiques, would have a field day watching a few of these productions.

This high-concept carry-on would be impossible without a cast given a space to infuse each and every character with their own voice. Many are returning for a sophomore season, helped along by some brilliant freshmen – namely Evelyn Miller as Roxane, more than just some inert presence ready to be the object at the battle of wills between two men, she's inquisitive, steely and exuberant – a lingering smile trying (and often failing) to mask a deep, underlying sadness. Vaneeka Dadhria's beatboxing remains a ticking heartbeat giving each scene pace, assuredness and verve.

At the centre of the anarchic world is James McAvoy, no less commanding than he was in 2019, spitting rhymes with near-disdain as his sing-song Glaswegian accent waltzes through Crimp's text with a muscular ferocity: a walking paradox of martial, muscly masculinity – words dished out like hammer blows or rapid-fire rapier slashes – alongside an innate ability to conjure fragile, tender phrases. Majestic.

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