THEATRE REVIEW: Edmond de Bergerac, at Royal & Derngate

Edmond de Bergerac, on stage in Northampton
Edmond de Bergerac, on stage in Northampton

It is Paris. It is the 1890s and young Edmond Rostand is suffering from a major case of writer's block.

The scene is carefully set as part of Alexis Michalik's dizzyingly clever play, Edmond de Bergerac, which started its run at Northampton's Royal and Derngate this week.

And, with Edmond as the central character, audiences sit back and watch the action unfold in an imagining of how this struggling writer became one of France's most celebrated playwrights, the author of Cyrano De Bergerac.

Although the audience may be sitting back, there is certainly no lounging involved for any of the fantastic cast in this action-packed farce.

From the beginning, the play has its own, very distinctive feel. Realism is not the central focus as actors move together in what appears to be highly-choreographed scenes, in almost constant movement.

There is no time to relax as the actors each have to deliver a layered tale, exploring a little of Edmond's own adventures and challenges as well as the development of Cyrano's story in Edmond's imagination. There is even an echo of Cyrano in Edmond's own life as he begins to become embroiled in the romantic life of his friend, Leo.

Quite appropriately, the stage set frequently contains the backdrop of theatre curtains, with balconied structures being moved about as needed. This seems appropriate, given the fact we are witnessing the story of an author, the making of his play and the play itself.

As with all good farces, comic timing is everything, and this production, directed by Roxana Silbert, does not disappoint.

The play works with an extremely strong cast, including some trusted comedy actors, such as Josie Lawrence playing background and supporting roles.

Josie delivers some very funny scenes, taking on a large number of minor parts (as actress Sarah Bernhardt, a waitress, an old actress and brothel madam, Suzon). Each part is delivered with 'scene-stealing' humorous facial expressions, accents and character creation.

Holby City actress Chizzy Akudolu also shines in her various roles, most notably as Maria, the 40-something actress shoehorned into playing the leading lady, Roxane, until she rather humorously encounters accident and misfortune while on stage.

Simon Gregor also deserves a mention for delivering the laughs in a series of roles including theatre wardrobe master and hotel receptionist. I particularly enjoyed the scene in which he is the receptionist dealing with enquiries from two men, each claiming to be the writer Georges Feydeau. Simon's look of horror when the real Georges turns up and is not able to convince reception he is the genuine article is comedy gold.

This is a play on which to concentrate, but it is not difficult to understand. It is only when the action is over that, as an audience member, you really appreciate the physical and mental feat it must take to successfully convey the content of the play, and make it look easy.

I also enjoyed the late 19th century Parisian backdrop to the scenes which really helped to bring colour to the story, what with its array of Moulin Rouge dancers, brothels, cafes and theatre houses. These details certainly helped transport the action to another time for audiences.

Edmond de Bergerac will run at Royal & Derngate until Saturday, April 13. Visit www.royalandderngate.co.uk