Cyrano playwright Deborah McAndrew reveals a nose for masterful story-telling

Playwright Deborah McAndrew won multiple awards in 2014 for her First World War drama, An August Bank Holiday Lark. Her work with Northern Broadsides, the Halifax theatre company run by Barrie Rutter, includes The Grand Gesture, A Government Inspector, Accidental Death of an Anarchist, Vacuum and The Bells.

Now she has come up with a thrilling adaptation of Edmund Rostand’s epic comic romance, Cyrano, for a Northern Broadsides co-production with the New Vic Theatre of Newcastle-under-Lyme, which will be touring the UK from next month.

Debbie McAndrew. Images Nobby Clark.

As an actor, she has worked extensively in television, radio and theatre. She is best known for her role as Angie Freeman in Coronation Street in the 1990s.

Here, writer Steve Pratt, talks to Debbie during rehearsals about the production.

Did you know Cyrano de Bergerac before working on your adaptation?

I am just very familiar with it, the story is something I kind of get.

When things make a mark they stay very vivid in my imagination and that’s how it is with Cyrano, particularly the film with Gerard Depardieu. It’s one of those stories that I felt like I knew.

I knew him and I knew her and they are characters I can inhabit, spend time with and re-imagine

What are the practicalities of writing for Northern Broadsides?

There’s always a couple of nuts and bolts things to pin down – like how many actors have I got? which is a key thing for me in doing this kind of adaptation because it affects the style.

If they say you have four you’d be doing something like a 39 Steps pocket version. Cyrano has 13 in the cast, meaning the main characters don’t have to double up roles.

There are six main characters who don’t double and an ensemble of seven. I have done plays with similar size casts. I am quite confident handling big cast. All the Broadsides shows, with the exception of Vaccum, have been large casts.

What’s it like being part of the Broadsides ‘family’, having written and acted with the company?

I began my work with the company in 1995 and have been part of Broadsides stable. Conrad (Nelson, the director) and I met in the Dream.

Within the Broadsides family I have developed my writing career and it’s home, a place where the style and approach is very comfortable for me. It has been a very important part of my career and life.

When Con is directing Shakespeare I am person he sits down with to do the cuts. We cut Hamlet together and Winter’s Tale. It’s a collaborative thing

What sort of working relationship do you have with director Conrad Nelson, to whom you’re married?

Conrad Nelson

It helps having Con directing because I do trust him. He reads the script I have written and he knows what I need. He knows where the ideas come from, especially with the original plays. He just gets it.

When we are talking about theatre we use the same language and have the same view of things. Our approach is absolutely unrelenting in its rigour and we don’t forgive ourselves any imperfections we identify.

I’ve not been in rehearsals very much for my plays, partly a geographical thing and also I have a home to deal with. But the partnership has really worked.

The original Cyrano is entirely in rhyming couplets but you’ve changed the form.

It’s pretty much still all in verse but I’ve jazzed it up so there are different kinds of verse forms within it and some prose.

It’s quite an instinctive thing in trying to make the form fit the content. It’s what serves the play and not what’s pickled in aspic although it’s important a lot of this play is in verse or a kind of heightened prose.

I wanted what serves the story right there at that moment rather than dictated by the verse form which makes you add syllables you don’t need. I hate having to look for rhymes and put stuff that’s really awkward into actors’ mouths,

Sometimes you write roles with specific actors in mind – why?

You can make it fit beautifully like a tailored jacket. It’s part of the pleasure for me. I love writing for actors I know and giving them a part that fits them.

I know when it goes out there on stage it will work and, for the audience and story, will be told fluidly and seamlessly. I don’t want to see the mechanics, I don’t want to see acting.

Why re-examine the role of Roxane, the girl with whom Cyrano is in love?

I suppose I am coming at it from 21 century woman’s sensibility but I have not done anything that is not there in the original.

She’s still a woman of her time but I have seen a couple of productions in recent times where Roxane, not just on the page but in the production, was lamentable because she was portrayed as being an airhead.

It’s not what’s in the play. She’s not a stupid girl. I want to make sure we get what’s in the play.

Why is Cyrano relevant to today?

The themes of love, loyalty and disguise are timeless. But I also think this is about a bloke with what we today would call body dystrophic disorder.

Okay, he does have a big nose but he’s the only one who has a problem with it. Everyone else stops noticing it after a while. Cyrano is a man who can’t get past his own nose.

His fear of rejection and ridicule is absolutely crippling and that’s something we can all identify with to some extent.

A you happy with the roles you’ve had as an actor?

I suppose I have spent my whole acting career living with the frustration of being a short woman because roles for them are very few.

Christian Edwards

There are only so many parts I can get to play but as a writer I can be all of them. As a young woman I went to see Hamlet but didn’t identify with Ophelia.

Just like the boys we want to be Hamlet but those roles are not there for you when you are a short girl with a northern accent. The field is so narrow. Interestingly in my imagination I want to be all those people and when you are a writer you can be all those people.

I have done a lot of radio acting where I am not so limited by what I look like.

Do you still get recognised from playing Angie Freeman in ITV’s Coronation Street in the 1990s?

The punters still recognise me. But it’s not a case of how does a girl in Corrie end up as a playwright? More how does a playwright end up in Corrie? I went to university not drama school. I wrote plays at school and at home. Corrie happened and sent my career in a different way.

What’s next?

The Chester Mystery Plays for 2018, an adaptation of Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall for Bolton Octagon and I’m also working on a new play.

I’m also author-in-residence at a high school. As an actor, I’m doing four more episodes of the BBC Radio Four drama Stone with Hugo Speer, which I’ve been doing for ten years.

I play a copper – if you could see me you would never cast me but it’s only my voice. I’m busy but you wont hear a word of complaint from me.

Cyrano, starring Christian Edwards as Cyrano and Sharon Singh as Roxanne, tours from February 3.

2017 Tour Dates

February 3-25, New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme
February 28 – March 4, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
March 7-11, Watford Palace Theatre
March 14-25, Liverpool Playhouse
March 28 – April 1, The Dukes, Lancaster
April 4-8, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough
April 11-15, York Theatre Royal
April 18-22, The Lowry, Salford Quays
April 25-29, Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham
May 2-6, Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds
May 9-13, The Viaduct Theatre, Halifax
May 16-20, Derby Theatre
May 23-27, Oxford Playhouse

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