Have you read Gustave Flaubert’s 1856 masterpiece Madame Bovary? Don’t worry, I haven’t either. As the cast introduce the show and poll the audience, most of the people present haven’t either. What follows is a madcap farce telling us Flaubert’s story, as adapted by John Nicholson. We are told that the addition of two rat catchers – I’m sorry, “two vermin extermination officials” – is a theatrical framing device, added to allow for a happy ending. This is to let us leave in good cheer given the season, and while the book is famously a tragedy, we are told that “every tragedy can have a silver lining”.
The Massive Tragedy of Madame Bovary! goes to great effort to ensure that it retains the relevancy of the original story alongside new comedy. It delivers an ending that nicely balances respect for the original and the character of Madame Bovary, but also for this fun end-of-year piece. As for making the tale into a comedy, well this has mixed results, with laughter levels varying throughout the audience. If you like your cock…erel jokes then there are a lot of those available. If not, then there’s a few too many of them, but still plenty of other laughs, along with a little poignancy.
Madame Bovary (Jennifer Kirby) is mostly played straight throughout, less involved in the madcap farce and not as over the top as the characters she meets. Kirby is fabulous as the heroine and particularly when she breaks character to stand up for Madame Bovary, her agency and her story. Dr Bovary (Sam Alexander) is played with such innocence and naivety that it is almost touching, but this is then coupled, of course, with the farcical comedy. As he keenly encourages his wife to go for a ride in the forest with a neighbour it is hard not to feel for him.
Dennis Herdman plays several of Bovary’s lovers as well as one of the rat catchers, and has a standout magic act at one point – did I mention this is a farce? Similarly, Alistair Cope plays a wide range of characters and can exit the stage to enter again immediately, simply wearing a different coat thrown over his shoulders to become a different character. He makes it all work with apparent ease and I’m sure he must have played a dozen characters hilariously over the course of the play.
The set by Amy Watts is a simple, almost cartoon-like room, which acts as many locations with ease. It provides much comedy, as blackboards are used for the cast to draw pictures of some props on before the props appear. Unlike some of the jokes, this is used sparingly, which works to its benefit. Sound (Matt Eaton) and lighting (Chris McDonnell) are deployed with impeccable timing to line up with physical comedy. There’s notably good work by all involved, under the direction of Marieke Audsley.
All four of the cast are fantastic. Any one of these performances in another show could be described as a scene stealer, but here they just complement each other so well. There is a sense throughout that the cast is really up for this. At the end, I felt like I’d watched a warm group of friends who had come together to do something they love, and to tell an important story. I know that even as the actors broke character to talk to us, they were still in character, but they all felt real and invested and together. This, in the intimate space of Jermyn Street Theatre, felt lovely.
Written by John Nicholson
Adapted from the novel by Gustave Flaubert
Directed by Marieke Audsley
Set and Costume Design by Amy Watts
Lighting Design by Chris McDonnell
Sound Design by Matt Eaton
The Massive Tragedy of Madame Bovary! plays at Jermyn Street Theatre until 17 December. Further information and bookings can be found here.