The latest collaboration from Sam Norman and Aaron King, a new musical adaptation of the classic French tale Cyrano de Bergerac, is undeniably an entertaining showcase of musical and theatrical talent, on behalf of the respective writer and composer and frankly the plethora of talented individuals involved. From the original musical accompaniment throughout, to the numerously witty and passionate performances of the leading actors, to effective minimalist staging and the fabulous period costumes, there is a lot to celebrate in this ambitious student production. For all its merits, however, I cannot help but wonder why the production exists if not merely to showcase these talents. Adapted on a play now one hundred and twenty years old, which itself is based on events dating back to the early seventeenth-century, I am uncertain as to the space which Cyrano de Bergerac fills on the modern stage.
The musical is set primarily in Paris during the Thirty Years’ War between France and Spain and details the heavily sensationalised story of real-life libertine Cyrano de Bergerac (James Bruce) as he pursues a life of poetry and philandering. One evening, after disrupting a public performance and wounding the lead actor in a duel, Cyrano confesses to a companion his love for his cousin Roxane (Great Thompson) and subsequently arranges to meet with her the next day. Upon their meeting, Roxane also has something to confess: she has fallen in love with a handsome new cadet, Christian de Neuvillette (Liam Sargeant); although, she is concerned her new fancy may be deficient when it comes to expressing his love. Cyrano, being an admittedly ugly man on account of his large nose but nevertheless an excellent poet, decides to assist Christian in attaining Roxane’s affections by writing her a series of letters on Christian’s behalf. However, the scheming Compte de Guiche (Alex Buchanan) is similarly pining after the affections of Roxane, and as the play continues his new instated military power threatens to destroy the developing affections between Christian and Roxane.
Unsurprisingly, the greatest achievement of Norman and King’s musical is of course the music. Before a single actor has stepped foot offstage and long after the cast has taken their final bows, the audience is treated to a delightful original score composed by King which is bursting with a sense of power and antiquated splendour, all the while betraying a slightly sombre, melancholic tone. There are a multitude of original songs penned by King, including a variety of stunning ballads to be sung by the leading cast. The performance of James Bruce as the titular protagonist Cyrano is without question the most impressive and diverse of the whole cast. His delivery never ceases to express bravado, admiration or sadness whenever necessary, his physicality is lively while controlled and whereas he may not be the strongest singer in the ensemble, he sings with confidence that defies even the odd shakiness which occurs intermittently in some of his high notes. Liam Sargeant similarly plays Christian with masses of energy, his impassioned and almost childlike optimism throughout the first act at times commanding even greater stage presence than Bruce in his most powerful moments. The antagonistic role of Guiche is performed with almost cartoonish villainy by Alex Buchanan, the expression of his conceit displayed in the absolute precision of his movements about the stage and his wicked facial expressions. His hideousness verges on the pantomime, in the best possible way, and I am sure I heard someone hiss when he first entered the stage. Finally, I think it only right to give special mention David Garrick as the poet and baker, Raguenau, the clear favourite of the audience who never fails to illicit rapturous laughter, whether he is reciting odes to Cinnamon buns atop or stool or manically miming his journey through the battlefield.
From here, my job becomes difficult. For all that I have praised the writing and the music created for this musical, ultimately it is from these most crucial features that I believe issues arise. Cyrano de Bergerac is a nineteenth-century story which in reality dates back to 1640 and, unfortunately, the musical suffers at the hands of its unavoidable datedness. Whereas Greta Thompson delivers a strong musical performance as Roxane, even arousing some dramatically ironic laughter amidst the confusion of her budding romance, I am not sure I ever believe her when she says she is in love or indeed understands what it is to feel love, and I think this is as much as fault of the script as anything else. Furthermore, beyond Roxane being the only aristocratic female in the musical, it is impossible to fathom why these three men suffer at the hands of her affections; she is a muse, an object for affection, for poetry and in this instance for song, but of otherwise of very little interest. I additionally took issue with the ensemble at various points throughout the performance. In the first scene, in which Cyrano disrupts the performance, much of the dialogue is lost to the jeering and babble of the ensemble; later in the first act, I felt my attention being consistently drawn away from speakers or even singers by even the silent interactions of the ensemble, littered about the stage. Whilst the second act sees the ensemble properly utilised when they appear as soldiers at the siege of Arras, at one point performing an impressively choreographed choral piece, ultimately this righteous and almost valorous presentation seems incongruous with war, within the play and the current socio-political climate. Considering the fact that the Keble O’Reilly has so recently housed a production of Julius Caesar tackling the current state of American politics, I left the show wondering why Cyrano has been selected, other than to serve as a framework for a musical.
Throughout the show, I was aware of a woman sat behind me, constantly sighing or crooning at the lovers, cheering the feats of Cyrano, muttering malcontent towards the antagonists and, as the second half progressed, generally stamping her feet at anything that aroused her pleasure. Part of me very strongly wanted to turn around and explain to this woman that she was not, in fact, a participant on Gogglebox. Yet, another part of me began to wonder that perhaps Cyrano de Bergerac was simply not the show for me. As a musical, perhaps it serves its purpose: it has some wonderful music, some sweet songs, a bit of romance, a bit of tragedy and a host of physical gags to keep up the momentum. Perhaps I am looking for a greater sense of meaning, a greater understanding, than is necessary for the enjoyment or the success of this musical. Perhaps I am holding the Oxford stage in too high esteem.