Man’s Best Friend, Oran Mor, Glasgow ****
I love words, that’s all. It’s a line spoken by the hero in Martin Crimp’s magnificent 21st century version of Cyrano de Bergerac, which plays at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow this week; at one point, it’s also etched on the back wall of the stage, in an elegant 17th century script that befits a story published in the late 19th century, but originally set in the 1640s.
The intoxicating and liberating power of words is the key to Jamie Lloyd’s acclaimed production, first seen in London in 2019, and now in Glasgow en route to New York; and together with designer Soutra Gilmour, he pushes the idea to its limit, stripping the stage of colour, ornament, and any hint of period detail, and instead giving us a Cyrano with the aesthetics and sound of a rap poetry slam, where young wordsmiths in jumpsuits or leather jackets – all in love with language, and led by the incomparably skilful Cyrano – juggle words with a ferocious vividness that makes visual imagery all but unnecessary.
The poetry reaches its height, of course, in Cyrano’s proxy wooing of Roxane on behalf of the inarticulate young Christian, whom she adores; and it’s here that Crimp’s wonderful text, and James McAvoy’s magnificent central performance as Cyrano, truly come into their own. Not since Martin Sherman wrote his purely verbal love scene for two male prisoners, in his 1979 concentration camp drama Bent, can a writer have used words alone to such overwhelming erotic effect, as when Cyrano, in darkness, adopts Christian’s voice to talk directly to Roxane of his desire and longing.
Yet if this production makes a true hero of Cyrano, as poet, lover, and soldier of tremendous strength and courage, it also faces up squarely to his profound tragic flaw, in the inability to believe he can be loved that leads him into a cruel and finally cowardly deception of the woman he loves. In this 21st century version of the tale, Evelyn Miller’s glorious Roxane is very much one of the intellectual gang, fully empowered to call out all the male game-playing – from fear of love to war itself – that robs her of love and happiness. And the two central characters are surrounded by a superb 18-strong company who work brilliantly as a rapping, beat-boxing ensemble, while also making space for superb individual performances – for example from Sophie Mercell, filling in for Michelle Austin, as Ragueneau the coffee house owner, Tom Edden as the villain De Guiche, and Adam Best as Cyrano’s friend Le Bret – all of which help to point the way, as the play closes, to a world in which the joy of poetry and rhyme is giving way to leaden prose, and to much darker uses of language, to lie, to browbeat, and to subdue.
Take That star Gary Barlow also proves himself a master of solo performance, in his new show A Different Stage. On its only Scottish tour date, Barlow’s show plays in the surprisingly intimate surroundings of Edinburgh’s Lyceum Theatre; and for those fans lucky enough to have a ticket, two hours of such close exposure to one of the heroes of their teenage years produces an utterly ecstatic response.
The first half of the show – when Barlow is riffing from some distance on his early life in Cheshire – is arguably stronger, and better structured, than the second half, in which he deals with the painful eclipse of his career in his late 20s, and his gradual return to the stage, as a relatively contented husband and father; his script – co-created with playwright Tim Firth – certainly has several false endings. Yet when each ending signals yet another much-loved song, bringing the audience roaring and swaying to their feet, no-one in the Lyceum is complaining – least of all Gary Barlow, who seems genuinely and touchingly grateful for every cheer, and every standing ovation.
Solo performance is also the key to the latest Play, Pie And Pint show Man’s Best Friend, a powerful new monologue by Douglas Maxwell. Performed with real poignancy by Only An Excuse star Jonathan Watson, the play tells the story of a lonely widower, Ronnie, who has developed a half-hearted career as a dog-walker; and finds his life taking a new turn when a runaway dog leads him to a shocking discovery in a Glasgow park. Given the huge role that canine friends have recently come to play in many people’s lives, it somehow seems right that this Play, Pie And Pint season should include a play that features so many powerfully-drawn dog characters, albeit unseen; and that tells a powerful human story, while also meditating quietly on the growing intensity of the relationship between humans and animals, in a century that now threatens the survival of both.
All until 26 March; Man’s Best Friend also at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 29 March until 2 April
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