Playbill correspondent Sheridan Morley reviews some major recent openings in the West End. This month: Caravan and Anthony Sher's Cyrano de Bergerac.
CYRANO DE BERGERAC: With the RSC still in search of some sort of artistic and geographic identity for the millennium, it is good to report that they have at least one smash hit, Cyrano de Bergerac, in their fragmented repertoire. Typically, they have chosen to end its regional tour in the West End rather than bolster their shaky semi-residency at the Barbican, but director Gregory Doran is about the brightest of their new team, and his partner Antony Sher now delivers at the Lyric a Cyrano of considerable power and romantic integrity.
It is not an easy brief; the Cyranos of Derek Jacobi and Robert Lindsay are still vivid in the memory, while there is also now Gerard Depardieu to contend with, and use of the Anthony Burgess translation, though by far the best around at present, only serves to remind us that he first worked the Rostand text as a Broadway musical for Christopher Plummer back in the sixties. Although that came apart at the seams, I still have this sneaking feeling that the Rostand would be at its best with a full score; either that or as a Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckler of the 1920's.
But now, a little late for any of that, what are we left with? Sher drives the play forward from his first great interruption of the old actor laddie right through three hours to the heartbreak of the death in the orchard, but he, too, seems a little uncertain whether to go for the sheer bravura and bravado of the piece, or try to convince us that there is something more intellectually stimulating afoot. His nose is, likewise, a sort of compromise between the full Pinocchio and a stylish semi-Roman, but the real problem with this centenary revival is, as ever, the RSC's chronic lack of a strong supporting cast.
Alexandra Gilbreath plays Roxanne with an intriguing mix of stupidity and eventual rage, suggesting not for the first time that she is on the verge of stardom; but elsewhere roles are hopelessly undercast, leaving us with a chronically uncharismatic Christian and the thought that unless the RSC can somehow win back some senior statesmen, precisely the kind of mature character actors needed for Rostand as for Shakespeare, we are going to be left with a whole series of one-star productions like this. Sheer Sher is all very well, but even he has trouble keeping the show on the road (for which it was clearly designed) with so little support.
CARAVAN: With pub theatres across London under economic threat as never before, even under the last administration, we can at least celebrate the 25th birthday of the Bush, which has done some handsome rebuilding, even if you do still require an Everest diploma to scale the upper seats. Their rebirth season gets off to a strong, if quirky start with Caravan: a first play by Helen Blakeman set in a Welsh seaside holiday caravan between 1994 and 1996. We have here a mother (the loud-mouthed, loving Elizabeth Estensen), her two daughters and two men who end up in various claustrophobic permutations sleeping with all three of them. But what might in other Ayckbourn hands have become a semi-sitcom about relationships gone rancid in the summer rain is here gradually turned into something more political and philosophic. The younger man (Nick Bagnall in a halting, nervy appearance) ends up a scab, stealing a job on the Liverpool docks from the older man (a weary, touching Pip Donaghy), who is on a picket line to protest against precisely the new-generation freelancing that Bagnall represents.
So the play is as political as it is personal, and in the end all the major issues about the honor of labor and the political rights of workers in a time of recession are reduced to an unseemly squabble about who should own one poky caravan on a run-down seaside estate. Predictably, it is the young would-be achievers at any cost who win out against the older idealists, but only through a series of half-hearted confidence tricks. Blakeman is clearly a young writer of promise, with an ear for the sharply fragmented dialogue of the twenty-something generation who regard education as something to be survived as quickly as possible, rather like chicken pox or herpes and about as useful in the long run.
I guess the final irony of Caravan is that an extended family who might once have managed a loving home are destroyed not so much by rampant and semi-incestuous sexual infidelities as by the desire to take control of a run-down and claustrophobic summer caravan, which anyone in their right mind would have sold off years ago, now that cheap flights to Spain offer a sunnier alternative. But "having somewhere to go" is essential to these people, and the author's final point is that none of them has anywhere to go, professionally, maritally or even domestically. It is a bitter and gloomy conclusion to a sometimes funny and oddly touching play, one that maybe should have been the pilot for a television series about hopelessness on Welsh beaches. But Blakeman is a powerful writer, and once she sorts out her priorities, she will, I think, come up with a more focused piece about the politics inherent in any family dynamic.
-- By Sheridan Morley