That's blown it

THEATRE: Cyrano de Bergerac Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford
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The Independent Culture
One associates Antony Sher with the capacity to astonish, less so with the ability to touch the heart. Dominating the stage as blazing- eyed megalomaniacs - Richard III, Arturo Ui, Tamburlaine et al - is what he has tended to do best. And even when such a character's overreaching villainy can be seen as colossal compensation for some deep psychic wound, as in the case of Richard, Sher's knack for signalling this was as nothing, compared to the compulsive energy with which he depicted its maligned consequences.

So what would he make of the role of Cyrano de Bergerac, the musketeer- poet with the outsize hooter who puts himself in the painful position of supplying a vacant, tongue-tied pretty boy with the love-rhetoric that wins the heart of the woman Cyrano himself adores. The attention-seeking drivenness of this character leads only to what is admirable (taking on a 100 bullies; taking on corrupt society), while the fact that this is to some extent the displacement activity of a profoundly lonely man is acknowledged and milked for all that it is worth and more. Would Sher be able to relate the panache to the pain?

The answer, at least from where I was sitting, is: Not often. It doesn't help that, with prosthetic proboscis in place, Sher looks about as romantic as Falstaff's disreputable, nasally egregious crony Bardolph. I know that, in theory, to play Cyrano as a plug-ugly, scrubby-bearded little man is the honourable course and that it's cheating just to pop a kingsized conk on a physically appealing actor, as they did with Depardieu, Tom Mannion and Robert Lindsay. But, if you don't, it sure is harder to conceal the sentimental unreality of Rostand's comic tearjerker.

Cyrano's much paraded virtue of "panache" is supposed to be a flamboyant, jokey grace under pressure. In Sher's performance, though, it's the sweaty effort rather then the airy flourish that hits you, as you watch him, say, simultaneously outfence a snooty enemy and compose a ballade of strict classical design. As with Anthony Burgess's bludgeoningly clever translation, there's no lightness of touch. That goes for the pain, too. One minute Sher is a roaring boy, eyes aflame, the next he's a gauche little-boy- lost, struggling to remain stoic at not being invited to life's party, and the effect looks so calculated, you feel like shouting "diddums". His best moments are those of wrapt poetic reflection where, in the intensity of his delivery, he really convinces you there's a soaring spirit trapped in the squat body.

Gregory Doran's beautifully lit production manages for the most part to keep its toes on the right side of the line that separates unashamed sentiment from shameless sentimentality. Indeed, Alexandra Gilbreath's marvellously winning Roxanne is so playfully intelligent, strong-minded and modern-seeming that you begin to wonder why she has fallen for the strange notion, on which the play is predicated, that it's the eloquent verbal expression of love that is the best guide to its existence. She's clearly never seen the first act of King Lear.

As the poetry-fancying pastry cook (a 17th-century Cyril Fletcher-cum- Mr Kipling), Geoffrey Freshwater is a delight, falling over himself with a grotesque yet touching superkeenness and looking as if he might go into vertical take-off at the absurd afflatus of his ode to custard tarts. There are a number of enjoyable features like this. But the play is mawkish emotional blackmail (all that artificially prolonged agony and no real test at the end of it) and Sher's performance is under par. So, on balance here, the noes have it.

To 27 September then touring. Booking: 01789 295623

Paul Taylor