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FringeReview UK 2022

The Massive Tragedy of Madame Bovary!

Jermyn Street Theatre

Genre: Adaptation, Comedy, Drama, Mainstream Theatre, Theatre

Venue: Jermyn Street Theatre


Low Down

Directed by Marieke Audsley, Set and Costume Designed by Amy Watts, Lighting Design Chris McDonnell, Sound Designer Matt Eaton

Production Manager Lucy Mewis-McKerrow, Stage Manager Jordan Littlewood, ASM Lily Brown, Movement Consultant Elliott Pritchard, Production Technician Ebbe Rodtborg, Set Builder Twelve34 Productions, Scenic Artists Mary Macken Allen, Emily Carne & Rah Petherbridge, Wardrobe Mistress Iris Ibanez Rojas, Intern Production Manager Annabelle Lamb.

Production & Rehearsal Photographer Steve Gregson, PR David Burns, Programme Designer Ciwa Design.

Thanks to Jerwood Space, Natasha Ketel, NT Costumes, Central School of Speech and Drama


Special thanks to former Artistic Director Tom Littler


Till December 17th


The French Writer’s Woman? That’s another way of titling John Nicholson’s The Massive Tragedy of Madame Bovary! And two possible endings? Can’t be too tragic if there’s an exclamation and a glutinous adjective assailing the simple virtues of Flaubert’s title.

But then Flaubert’s out of luck with Jermyn Street Theatre, as Orlando Figes’ The Oyster Problem swallows Flaubert’s own life next February. Nicholson’s original Peepolykus  theatre adaptation of 2016 is revived in this superb JST production till December 17th.

If this is a Christmas show it goes a funny way about it. Funny because Sam Alexander (last seen in The Homecoming) breaks out of his stolid Charles Bovary role – and others – to declare himself the author trying to fashion a different ending to the tragic. What about a framing device?

If we start with two rat-catchers, Alexander and Dennis Herdman – the latter stumbling across Emily Bovary (Jennifer Kirby) trying to acquire arsenic when he’s snaffled the entire supply – we might be in for self-referential, self-framing farce: a simple guying from the National Theatre of Brent.

Nicholson has form in this: His The Hound of the Baskervilles arrived here in 2017, his most recent retelling. Like The Thirty-Nine Steps, say, there’s a core of faithful homage. Unlike that caper though, the flashbacks as Emily tells her tale to Herdman’s Ratman who already seems to know most of it, become increasingly solid, serious, tragic. The spirit’s distilled, the exposition, sheer quotidian ennui of provincial life as Flaubert portrayed it, is husked.

Kirby – last at the RSC for Henry IV Parts I and 2 and Henry V – is superb. You believe in her as a serious Bovary with just that right pitch of ardent wildness, scorn, abandon, flatline devastation and joyful nihilism, as well as sheer mischievousness on occasion. When she steps out of character it’s more unexpected than the others, so absorbed is she in the title role.

The revenant rat-catcher Herdman (often seen at the RSC) alternates as Bovary’s two lovers: hapless, ardent Leon, who returns as her second lover after her first, suave roué Rodolfe, engineers an end after a few months, as he predicts he’ll do in an aside. The economy of telling gleams in Nicholson’s hands, and in the actors the sheer glee of telegraphing events as farce shows few bounds. The climax – the word’s used advisedly – comes at the end of Act One, where the famous “I have a lover!” repeated three times like Jane Birkin (“J’ai un amant”) is a scene where via audience feedback, we’re told, demands we enjoy it again. As the seduction apexes, shot silks are pulled out of Bovary’s bodice or red florets from both mouths and hearts, pulsing like a small animal. Indeed one of these appears too.

Amy Watts has ranged a playful set against contrastingly sumptuous period costumes. With real blue doors with cartoon squiggles against the white ones, faux-cartoon openings that turn out real, and only a table that once does service as a piano, the JST space as ever signals depths and intimacy simultaneously. Sash windows so useful for suicide bids and joyful weddings, lovers’ leaps and double entries, swing onto the kitchen or a wood. Chris McDonnell’s lighting helps though his piece de resistance is saved till the end.

Herdman’s able to take time off from Ratcatcher and lovers to assume blink-and-they’re-gone Viscount and outraged Dr Cavinet)

The protean Alistair Cope (impressing in Macmillan’s People, Places, Things) has most to do though: from Blind Man, Sheep and Cow to pompous speechmaker Homais, to luckless brother Hippolyte undergoing Charles Bovary’s ill-fated medical procedure for a club foot (his brother, Herdman’s Roualt all too complicit). Most of all Cope relishes evil Lheureux who in another kind of Ratcatcher’s hat (think Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) goads Bovary to her destruction quite wittingly. As  Bailiff he simply inhabits Lheureux as pitchfork devil collecting Bovary’s soul.

When the end-plot’s wound back to where we start (at the chemist’s with that bottle like Schrodinger’s Cat both present and long absent) we’re presented with several volte-faces. There’s an exquisite line Kirby delivers not written by Flaubert. It’s teasing, profound, and asks Flaubert what the nature of fiction and immortality is. That, though, you must see for yourself. An outstanding revival, full of fierce fun, pathos and a massive tragedy for Christmas, wrapped in red bon-bons.