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The Massive Tragedy of Madame Bovary! – Jermyn Street Theatre

Not entirely unexpectedly, I found myself in the majority of people in the audience at The Massive Tragedy of Madame Bovary! (the exclamation mark is apparently important) who hadn’t read the novel Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880). The title character, at least in this adaptation, doesn’t at surface level crave for very much. But she is unsatisfied in married life with not much to do back in the days when husbands went out to work and wives, well, generally didn’t. So, she finds satisfaction elsewhere.

Sam Alexander, Jennifer Kirby and Alistair Cope in The Massive Tragedy of Madame Bovary at Jermyn Street Theatre. Photography by Steve Gregson.
Sam Alexander, Jennifer Kirby and Alistair Cope in The Massive Tragedy of Madame Bovary at Jermyn Street Theatre. Photography by Steve Gregson.

It is, I think, meant to be a comedy, and while I found some punchlines amusing, the play as a whole can’t seem to decide whether it wants to be a send-up of mid-nineteenth-century values and norms, or something more serious. The laughs dry up in the second half, not so much because the jokes stop being funny, but because the jokes simply stop, with the audience instead being invited to take rather exaggerated expressions of love at face value.

There are brief forays, mostly when the actors break character and discuss between themselves how to proceed (which in itself is as bizarre as it sounds), into what the contemporary applications could be for this adaptation of a story from a previous generation. But it’s not a good look when they perform about as many U-turns in a couple of hours as the Government does in a couple of weeks – for instance, the audience is promised a happy ending, which is then cancelled, but is then forced through anyway.

The pacing is slightly off too – there are plenty of doors that open and close, but they ought to have done so with more speed, even if this risked adding to the deliberately chaotic nature of proceedings. Suspension of disbelief extends to accepting that somehow tunes by Edith Piaf and Michel Legrand existed in the nineteenth century. Impressively, twenty-nine characters are played by four actors, eighteen of them by Alistair Cope. The set is kept relatively uncluttered, which allows for scene changes at the speed of light, but what should be a high-speed performance is slowed down by interruptions galore, including the use of small blackboards on the set. It doesn’t, in fairness, take that long for someone to draw a gramophone or a duck, but neither of these have much to do with the life and times of Emma Bovary (Jennifer Kirby).

I make the same conclusion about many of the punchlines – these may have been entertaining for some, especially those who don’t mind a deluge of cock(erel) jokes, but they don’t do much, if anything, to advance the plot. The play feels longer than it is, at least partly because it is too repetitive: an entire scene from the first half is repeated in the second, thanks to a completely unconvincing ‘welcome back’ announcement after the interval that people in the audience had demanded a reprise. It’s an overambitious production, attempting to be both side-splitting and poignant, and managing instead to be mildly chucklesome and emotionally indifferent.

It does, at least, have a hard-working and committed cast. But this isn’t business as usual at Jermyn Street Theatre, and their usually high standards have fallen somewhat short on this occasion.

2 gold stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Emma Bovary is bored. She’s bored with her boring doctor husband, bored with her boring provincial village, and bored with her role as a dutiful wife in (boring) nineteenth-century France. But Emma reads novels. Lots of novels. And in novels, life is considerably more riotous… Now, four actors battle hilarious mishaps and misbehaving props to tell the (massively) tragic story of Madame Bovary.

The Massive Tragedy of Madame Bovary!

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