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Review of The Massive Tragedy Of Madame Bovary! at the Royal & Derngate (Derngate), Northampton

The set of Madame Bovary tells you very little of what is to come when you enter the theatre, a stark black backdrop with possible panel slightly which may or may not reveal things. There are however interesting things lurking in the area of the stage that offer tantalising ideas. As it turns out, this vast black backdrop is perhaps one of the best idea to come from this production. The set itself is a giant blackboard and chalk becomes a reoccurring factor in moving the story between locations and creating clever ideas.

Created by theatre company Peepolykus, formed of cast members John Nicholson and Javier Marzan, this production brings high and farcical comedy to the tragic Gustave Flaubert novel. No mean feat, and for the best part it works very well. It has at its centre four exceptional members of cast, with as well as Nicholson and Marzan, Emma Fielding and Jonathan Holmes completing the four performers who will create all of the characters in this play.

It opens rather weirdly with first two rat catchers travelling by carriage and then on their arrival, switches very strangely to the whole cast addressing the audience. I think it works, but I did genuinely have a strange reservation of it feeling a little too clever at times. They not only break the fourth wall, they pretty much smash it, as this isn't the characters addressing the audience, it is the actors themselves. I am fine with these scenes, but I do think this is where some of the excess of the production occurs, as much of the time they are going over the same ground.

However while those scenes for me don't entirely work, pretty much all of the others do. This is a high energy production brimming with constantly clever ideas and real quality physical and clowning theatre. All the cast members bring exceptional performances to the table. I have to say that my favourite is Marzan, he is without doubt an extremely talented individual and moves between the characters with ease. Often sliding backwards out of view and seconds later sliding back, with slightly altered dress and a brand new character. Exceptional work must be going on behind the scenes here, absolutely as good as the work that the audience sees on stage. Also quite wonderful and tremendously alluring (I totally fell in love) is Emma Fielding. Every bit the sensual and playful performance and also impressive in the (admittedly very rare) serious moments. Holmes is the go to man for the over the top characters right from his first appearance as the all-seeing blind accordion playing clairvoyant. Completing the line-up is Nicholson, perhaps the calmest of the crew, if this is possible in this vast production of chaos, but no less the larger than life performance when the moment (often) requires.

As already mentioned Conor Murphy's set at first doesn't reveal its depth until panels start popping and sliging open, and then it becomes quite a surprising beast of quality. There are also a few items of incredibly well designed props which amazingly are used so briefly. Lighting from Jack Knowles also creates an impressive atmosphere on the dark background.

Madame Bovary! is a show that comes highly recommended. It is a touch too long perhaps and for me would benefit from some trimming in places, particularly in the scenes through the fourth wall. However the comedy is does is often of exceptional quality with many new ideas, and successfully brings that comedy from absolute sorrow.

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Performance reviewed: Tuesday 10th May, 2016 at the Royal & Derngate (Royal), Northampton.

The Massive Tragedy Of Madame Bovary! is on at the Royal & Derngate until Saturday 14th May, 2016 before continuing its tour. Details here: http://www.peepolykus.com/home

For further details about the Royal & Derngate visit their website at http://www.royalandderngate.co.uk/

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