The Oyster Problem by Orlando Figes. Jermyn Street Theatre, 16b Jermyn Street, London W1 to 4 March 2023. 3***. William Russell.

Civilised, interesting, informative but dramatically inert this first play by Orlando Figes is about the decline of Flaubert and the attempts by his friends, Zola, Turgenev and Georges Sand to save him from penury. It is based on research Figes did while writing his book The Europeans and in a programme note he says that much of the dialogue is drawn from the letters the friends sent one another and the diaries of the Goncourts. One cannot fault the material as such or the performances of the five strong cast – the fifth person is Flaubert’s niece Caroline who looks after him – but what we see would make a decent small book or a fat colour supplement article in an upmarket Sunday paper but never a play. Full marks for trying but a failure in other words. The other pluses include a stylish set by Isabella Van Braeckel and the way director Phlip Wilson has managed to keep things moving so that even if one is never excited by the story told at least one watches with enough interest to stick it out to the end. Bib Barrett is a splendidly foolish Flaubert, a huge, flamboyant man who simply has no idea about the value of things and carries on living as if he were a man of means when he is not, demanding the oysters of the title, which is what he and his friends like to feast on, when he does not have the money to afford that sort of life style and refusing, unlike the pragmatic Zola, an incisive Peter Hannah giving the evening some meat as it were, who knows the value of everything. He writes for newspapers. Flaubert condemns them and that means of making some money out of hand, which leads to an interesting debate with some relevance to today about the media although it never quite gets fully set out. Meanwhile Giles Taylor as Turgenev provides elegance as an amiable lecher who swans about in society and knows how to influence people who control the purse strings and Juliette Adam as Sand tries to talk a little sense into a man incapable of seeing it. They all rise to the occasion, as does Rosalind Lailey as the niece, whose errant husband is part of the reason for Flaubert’s financial woes. One means of getting some money is that she is a good painter of watercolours but selling them – she does one of Flaubert – is something her uncle cannot bear. Actually what she paints is not when we see it a watercolour nor when she is painting, when naturally we do not see what she is doing, is what we see remotely like painting in watercolour. This is one of those evenings when the sum of the parts is not enough to save the whole although that is not to say Orlando Figes should not have tried to write a play about them, just that it is, for all the interesting things it revels, it is not a very good one. But that is no reason for not going to see it because one learns things of great interest about some amazing people.

Gustave Flaubert: Bob Barrett.

Ivan Turgenev: Giles Taylor.

George Sand/Juliette Adam: Norma Atallah.

Emile Zola: peter Hannah.

Madeleine/Caroline Commanville: Rosalind Lailey.

Director: Philip Wilson.

St & Costume Designer: Isabella Van Braeckel.

Lighting Designer: Catja Hamilton.

Composer & Sound Designer: Harry Blake.

Production Photographs: Steve Gregson.

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