The Oyster Problem ★★★ Jermyn Street Theatre | Feb 9 - Mar 4, 2023

The real oyster problem is that Orlando Figes' glimpse into the lives of some of the 19th century's most important writers is more a collection of historical anecdotes than a play. The insights into Flaubert and his circle of friends, Turgenev, Zola and George Sand, are diverting, but the historical facts often feel shovelled in, without concern about how they advance the narrative. Rather than a drama, it all becomes an animated academic lecture about the literary circle that was centred around the egocentric and elitist creator of Madame Bovary. The discussions of art, love and sex may be accurate, but they aren't particularly engaging. The crux of the piece is that Flaubert has money issues, some caused by his own extravagant lifestyle, such as the fondness for oysters, and others by the husband of his beloved niece. However, the misanthropic searcher for "le mot juste" will not stoop to play the political and popularity game of other writers, such as Zola and Turgenev. The perfectionist, self-indulgent, Flaubert cuts himself off from any avenues of release from his problems, and then rails against the crass new world. It is not a very endearing picture of the writer, but Bob Barrett plays it to the hilt. Giles Taylor does a fine turn as the urbane lecher, Turgenev, and Norma Atallah hits the mark as the practical feminist, Sand. Peter Hannah creates a believably pragmatic Zola, and Rosalind Lailey is credible as the put-upon niece. However, all of the characters remain rather one-dimensional, just as they apparently are in Flaubert's own perception. It is all about him. The Oyster Problem confirms the truism that great artists may not be very likeable people, and it offers a humanising look into the world of the acknowledged master of French prose.

Rated: ★★★

Reviewed by J.C.
Photo by Steve Gregson.

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