It’s not hard to spot who’s at the White Bear for the play, and who’s there for the footy. The pub has something of a split personality: quintessential South London boozer on the one hand, purveyor of quality drama on the other.
But from the moment the stage swarms with sots, bawds and fops for the theatre-within-a-theatre that opens Cyrano de Bergerac, it’s clear that a pub’s back room is exactly the right setting for Black and White Rainbow’s production. With its rhymed verse, wit contests and courtly codes, Edmond Rostand’s enduring tale of unrequited love risks appealing solely to the head, but this is a Cyrano that goes for the heart and the jugular.
For those unfamiliar with the story, Cyrano (played by Gwilym Lloyd) is a nobleman renowned for his swordsmanship, his wit, and his enormous nose. This protrusion bars him (he believes) from ever being loved by a woman, though he adores his cousin Roxane (Iris Roberts). She, however, adores slow-witted pretty-boy Christian (Philip Scott-Wallace), and Cyrano decides to woo vicariously through his rival by feeding him the eloquent lines Roxane craves. The tale turns tragic when the Comte de Guiche (another rival, played with just the right mix of dastardliness and depth by Simon Donnelly) sends Cyrano and Christian to the siege of Arras as musket fodder.
Holding just 40 – who are close enough to see every bead of sweat and feel nervous when swords start being brandished – the venue accentuates the production’s emphasis on the machismo and passion of its 17th-century French setting. From the start the young cast send the text fizzing along, helped by Ranjit Bolt’s sparky translation (first used at the Bristol Old Vic in 2007). Bolt’s mixture of the quaint and the contemporary reflects the double-time of a play written in 1897 but set in the age of Richelieu.
Director Simon Evans handles the space’s limitations imaginatively, especially in the famous ‘balcony’ scene in which Cyrano takes advantage of the darkness to woo in Christian’s stead. Here, no more than a bench is required by way of set (though the lights could work harder to create a nocturnal atmosphere). Instead of struggling to discern her suitor(s) in the garden Roxane allows herself to be blindfolded while the rivals-cum-accomplices jostle for space beside her. The scene simultaneously achieves a kinky erotic charge, a delicious absurdity and a wrenching poignancy as we witness the (literally) crowded relationship.
In the iconic title role, Gwilym Lloyd captures both Cyrano’s passion – in matters of honour and personal pride as well as love – and his soldierly swagger. Rather than chewing over the text, squeezing out all the ironic juice, he allows the words to cascade out over each other. His Cyrano, a bundle of emotional energy pinned in by his own pride and integrity, is involving and moving.
In order for the play to make sense Roxane must be a magnetic presence; she must also be more than a pretty face, or else the message about the triumph of inner beauty rings false. Well, Iris Roberts is outstanding. With turn-on-a-dime comic precision and an emotional range from feisty sexuality – she seems not just to love Cyrano/Christian’s wit but, er, get off on it – through to autumnal tenderness, Roberts makes her character every bit as sophisticated and compelling as Cyrano. Crucially, she and Lloyd have a rapport that is a real treat to watch.
The design (aside from that reservation about the lighting) is simple but effective: a recurring maple-leaf motif works well as an unobtrusive symbol. Cyrano’s nose is conspicuously fake, almost Commedia dell’Arte, but that seems to me to be part of the point: it’s as though he uses it as an excuse for the futility of his love when in truth his pride is by far the larger obstacle.
I do hope that some of the footy-loving regulars will be tempted in to watch in addition to just the fringe theatre crowd. This is a big-hearted and often hilarious production that will appeal to romantics of any stripe.
‘Cyrano de Bergerac’ is on until 4 September.
More information and bookings here