Cyrano de Bergerac

Apr 25 2024 | By | Reply More

★★★★☆     Unexpectedly touching

Hill Street Theatre: Wed 24– Sat 27 May 2024
Review by Hugh Simpson

There is an almost wilfully uneven quality to Arkle’s Cyrano de Bergerac at the Hill Street Theatre, but – eschewing much of the heroic bombast that is usually associated with the play – it manages to be convincing and affecting.

Edmond Rostand’s 1897 drama presents a fictionalised version of the life of Cyrano, a 17th-century writer and duellist. As well as going to war, he uses his poetic gifts to woo his distant cousin Roxane on behalf of Christian, who is well-meaning and handsome. The irony, of course, is that Cyrano loves Roxane himself but, worried about his huge nose, feels unable to say so.

Cyrano (John Lally). Pic: Rob Shields, Arkle Theatre.

Rostand’s play was a romantic (and indeed Romantic) riposte to the then-growing tendency towards realism. It is self-consciously poetic, not a little melodramatic, and features a huge cast.

A brave choice, then, for a low-budget production in the decidedly snug confines of the top floor at Hill Street; the intimacy of the space becomes almost claustrophobic once the minimal set blocks the door which the audience just came in through.

The comparative lack of grandeur is emphasised by the use of Glyn Maxwell’s 2013 translation. Although Maxwell came to prominence as a poet, his version of what was originally a verse drama is often oddly prosaic, certainly compared to the relish for language displayed in Edwin Morgan’s celebrated Scots translation.


All of which means that the epic sweep we might expect is largely absent. Instead, there is a downbeat feeling to much of the production which works particularly well in the much darker second half. Not only is there a poignant, Blackadder-ish depiction of the horrors of war, there is a final scene which is exceptionally touching.

Christian (Steven Bradley Croall) and Cyrano (John Lally). Pic: Rob Shields, Arkle Theatre.

This is thanks to the sureness of touch of director Phil Barnes, and to a portrayal of Cyrano by John Lally that is tremendous by any standards.

Believable as both poet and soldier, Lally turns in an emotionally convincing central performance that is far from the larger-than-life figure that might be expected, but extremely sympathetic as a result. He is helped by a prosthetic nose that (even at such close quarters) is remarkably effective.

Hannah Bradley Croall’s Roxane is similarly grounded, with her devotion to poetry being more idealistically, and less flightily, portrayed than is usual. Steven Bradley Croall’s nice-but-dim Christian is also plausibly agreeable.

framing device

The resolutely homespun nature of the production does not always convince, however. Maxwell’s solution to the huge cast is to have a framing device where the nuns from the convent at the story’s end are retelling the tale in the surprising absence of Cyrano.

Gregor McElvogue with Gordon Craig, Steven Bradley Croall and the Cadets: Sinead Grey, Hannah Fitzpatrick, Kate Stephenson and Laura Sochas. Pic: Rob Shields, Arkle Theatre.

This means that these nuns (Kate Stephenson, Sinead Gray, Hannah Fitzpatrick and Laura Sochar) take on the various supporting roles. They do this with energy and commitment, but it is a distinctly theatrical touch that works against the more heartfelt or realistic moments. Similarly, the swaggering, swashbuckling elements of the first half do not always convince. The humour, furthermore, often falls flat.

The problem is that, in striving to attain a level of emotional realism that Rostand deliberately avoided (and would have hated) you end up with some things that don’t make sense.

 nuanced portrayal

The sudden transformation of the military commander De Guiche from enemy to friend makes no sense in psychological terms, but can be excused if he appears to have come from commedia dell’arte rather than kitchen-sink. Here, it just seems unexplainably odd – something that Gregor McElvogue’s wonderfully nuanced portrayal heightens rather than dispels.

Similarly, Alastair Lawless and Gordon Craig, as Cyrano’s friends Ragueneau and Le Bret, turn in thoughtful performances that just reinforce the fact that they are stock characters instead of real people.

Roxane (Hannah Bradley Croall) and Cyrano (John Lally). Pic: Rob Shields, Arkle Theatre.

Zander Nisbet, Hazel Eadie, Rob Mackean and Brian Neill fare somewhat better in that the various characters they play are either there more for comic relief in the first place, or serve merely to move the plot along.

In the end, however, the pared-back nature of the production works better than anyone has a right to expect. The cast are never less than committed, and the direction is always imaginative and thoughtful.

The spare but imaginative staging and Dug Campbell’s stark but haunting original music (unaccompanied vocals by Judith Walker and Lyndsay Kennedy, flute by Josh Harling-Lee) are well used.

The occasional wobbly moments in a first half that takes a long time to settle down are soon forgotten in a second half that has genuine theatrical power.

Running time: Two hours and 10 minutes (including one interval)
Hill Street Theatre, 19 Hill St, EH2 3JP4
Wed 24 – Sat 27 April 2024
Daily at 7.30 pm
Details and tickets: Book here.

Arkle website:

Le Bret (Gordon Craig), Raganeau (Alastair Smith). Pic: Rob Shields, Arkle Theatre.


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