King Eric falls flat on his back as stage debut dribbles away

First Night Review: Face Au Paradis, Théâtre Marigny, Paris
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The Independent Online

As A footballer, Eric Cantona was a great player and a great actor. You could not remove your eyes from the theatrical presence of the strutting man in the upturned collar and the number 7 shirt. As a film actor, Cantona has learned to be passable, even good, so long as he plays, broadly speaking, himself. As a stage actor… oh dear.

The great man's theatrical debut won standing applause and bravos but the Parisian audience was partly composed of friends and family. It also included the former French culture minister, Jack Lang, and a young man wearing a Manchester United shirt with “Cantona” and the number 7 printed on the back.

This, one assumes, was the first time that anyone attended the ornate Théâtre Marigny, just off the Champs Elysées - and only a long throw-in from the grounds of the Elysée Palace - wearing a Manchester United replica shirt.

How did Cantona do? Watching Eric on stage was rather like watching Gérard Depardieu… playing football. It was fascinating, not because it was done well but because of who was trying to do it.

OK, that is slightly unfair. Eric was credible, just. His stage presence, as “Max”, a man bleeding to death in a collapsed supermarket, had a brooding charm. But his heavy Marseilles accent and his tendency to swallow words made him difficult to follow.

He was, admittedly, playing a dying man but there were long, apparently poetic passages, when the audience strained to hear what the dying man was saying.

In a play in which he was on stage for the entire 90 minutes - the length of a football match - that was something of a handicap. Cantona was also, I think, miscast. He was supposed to be a buttoned up, snobbish accountant, who finds himself trapped in a building which has fallen down for reasons unknown.

The only other survivor, separated from him by an insubstantial wall, is a chirpily depressive petrol pump attendant, played brilliantly by Lorant Deutsch, a rising, young French cinema and theatre actor. The two bicker and tease one another and then gradually reveal their banal dreams and their banal failures.

In his dozen film roles since he gave up football in 1997, Cantona has mostly played sportsmen, gangsters or detectives. In last year's excellent Ken Loach movie “Looking for Eric”, he played, beautifully, a spoof version of himself. Taking on a buttoned-up, snobbish accountant with a Marseilles accent didn't quite work, chemically, for Eric Cantona.

The play, “Face au Paradis” (Looking At Paradise) by the young playwright Nathalie Saugeon, is directed by Cantona's second wife, Rachida Brakni, a classically trained actress making her directorial debut. With a little known writer, a debutant principal actor, and a debutante director, the show would not have premiered at the prestigious Theatre Marigny without the pull of the Cantona name.

“Face au Paradis” starts powerfully, with a marvellously convincing and claustrophobic set (perhaps too convincing in the light of the Haiti earthquake). The drama is allowed to dribble away in the second half, as if the playwright, director and actors settled for a scoreless draw, instead of pushing hard for the victory.

There are, however, three months of the play to run. Advance ticket sales are excellent. Cantona may grow into his role. I plan to go again in a month's time, and wear my own Manchester United replica shirt.