First let’s be clear; this is no ordinary west end festive fayre. In fact it’s far from an ordinary Cyrano de Bergerac. There’s no ‘nose’ for a start. So if you’re after period costumes, eye watering sentiment and a warm, fuzzy feeling, there’s an excellent production of ‘A Christmas Carol’ at the Old Vic. But if you’re ready for a new Christmas flavour, something really exciting is happening in the Playhouse Theatre and I’m not just talking about James McAvoy. With an explosive new version of Rostand’s classic (1897) from Martin Crimp and a seriously stripped back production from the Jamie Lloyd Company, it’s a show that challenges and entertains with a genuinely contemporary bite.

We are told we’re in Paris, 1640 but everyone is in modern dress and the language is convincingly current, providing rich opportunities for humour. Spoken word and beat-box culture gives a familiar context within which Crimp retains Rostand’s original rhyming couplet form so that it feels entirely ‘natural’. McAvoy gives a magnetic performance as the raging wordsmith Cyrano who knows he has no chance of love with beautiful Roxane, instead writing love letters on behalf of the handsome young soldier, Christian (Eben Figueiredo).

Whilst Roxane is actually beautiful, McAvoy (without ‘the nose’) is not exactly her ‘ugly’ friend. All that is left to our imagination. For that reason alone (though there are others), he doesn’t inspire our pity in the same way as Gerard Depardieu in the 1990 blockbuster. But this production is deliberately avoiding any easy emotional hits. Dispensing with the usual delights of set and costume, the focus is on language and the creative act; the power language has to fight, to wound, to woe. The actors, the words are everything. And the performers rise to the challenge with intense physical and verbal energy.

Cyrano is inspired to create by his rage. As he acts as an increasingly invasive go-between for the lovers, he is not the only character we care for. We are invited to suspect Cyrano’s ‘acres of high-brow wet-dream prose’ and question the morality of the trick he plays on Roxane who ends up wondering whether she loved two men or ‘none at all’. Anita-Joy Uwajeh brings feisty power and wit to Roxane and Figueiredo’s confusion as the plan spirals is genuinely touching. Michele Austin gives a stand-out performance as the poetry teacher and chef who provides a safe space for the young creatives in suburban Paris; an unsuspecting heroine and maker of lemon tarts.

Photo credit: Marc Brenner.

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