The Massive Tragedy of Madame Bovary!

Bristol Old Vic, 6 May 2016

It’s probably for the best that Tim booked this without my knowledge and also that I didn’t look it up before we went, because on paper I’m not sure I would have been convinced by the concept. An uproarious, farcical comedy based on Flaubert’s tragic novel Madame Bovary, with song, dance, magic tricks, strobe lighting and adult humour. It seems so unlikely to work that I suppose it was inevitable that it actually would.

I should say upfront that I thoroughly enjoyed this. I spent a lot of the show crying with laughter. Once I got the message that this was not a serious adaptation of a serious novel, but a fourth-wall-breaking comedic homage, I settled in for some very-not-serious fun.

It’s a long time since I read the book. I forget whether it was before university or during, but it’s long enough ago that I remembered only the bare bones of the plot. The cast of four did a great job of summarising, including telling us that they had added the opening characters of two rat-catchers as a plot device.

Emma Bovary is played by Emma Fielding, who managed to bring pathos and subtlety to the role amidst the chaos onstage. She stops the action on multiple occasions to give mini-lectures on her character, lest we dare reduce her to a cheater and spendthrift. Those speeches were a little bit GCSE and not actually necessary because Fielding does an excellent job of acting her part, giving Madame Bovary exactly that depth of character that she argues the case for.

Peepolykus regulars John Nicholson and Javier Marzan play Emma’s husband Dr Bovary (John) and all of Emma’s love interests (Javier) and they both mix broad humour with the serious side of their characters, so that all the romances are believable and the sorrows evident.

The broadest humour comes from Jonathan Holmes, who plays almost all the other characters (including several women, a pantomime trait I have mixed feelings about). He is given fewer serious moments but in those he does get he proves just as capable as the others of switching from light to dark, from bawdy to subtle.

The humour is of every kind imaginable. There’s costume changes, using the set in original and clever ways (there are clearly staircases behind the scenery used to great effect), prat falls, wordplay, character-switching, prop humour, silly dances and interaction with the lighting technician – and probably more forms besides. I particularly liked that the backdrop is made up of giant blackboards that the cast draw and write on with chalk throughout the show, from labelling a setting to drawing a gramophone rather than having one on stage.

It’s hard to explain why this cacophony works, and the only true explanation is the cast and the writing. It all reminded me a lot of the work of the Reduced Shakespeare Company, who I was a big fan of and saw several times in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but Peepolykus include a little more of the serious side of the story, not just the intellectual humour.

This show’s run in Bristol has now finished but the tour continues around the UK.