This departure from normal Thriller Season fare doesn’t work.
Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel started life as a play, and premiered in 1903, at the same venue as this press-night performance, Nottingham’s Theatre Royal. It was unsuccessful. Sadly, by recent Classic Thriller Season standards, this adaptation from Louise Page is also unsuccessful.
This has little to do with the actors, who, given the material they have to work with, are excellent. The main problem is the text, which is utterly non-compelling to the point of being pedestrian. Nothing that anyone says is at all memorable; and it doesn’t generate any magic moments of the sort the Thriller Season normally comes up with.
The plot alternates between non-thrilling thriller and almost childish ripping yarn. Since it’s 1792, the French Revolution is well underway. In London the aristocratic Sir Percy Blakeney is leading two parallel lives. In one he’s an effete, snuff-taking fop. In the other, he’s the Pimpernel himself; a master of disguise and daring righter of wrongs, rescuing fellow aristocrats across the Channel from the guillotine.
He’s a Batman, a Caped Crusader for the early 20th century. It worked on the printed page then, but it doesn’t work now, especially on stage.
Andrew Ryan, in the lead role, dominates proceedings. He uses voice, gait and manual gesture to capture the character. It’s no fault of the other actors that they cannot do the same – blame the playwright.
There are other, albeit more minor problems. For example, some of the wigs, notably one worn by the French innkeeper, which looks as if it was dropped on top of his head at the last minute. When he runs around, it virtually bounces about.
Background music, drawn from a range of fine composers, lends the play some life – who can fail to be stirred by The Marseillaise? So too do a spot of swordplay done by a couple of the female characters, and some danced scene-changing. There’s also some quiet humour arising from meta-theatrical quipping in the first half.
No-one expects every Thriller Season outing to involve West End flats, telephones and plod in raincoats – many of the best ones haven’t – but this particular departure doesn’t work.
Margueritte St Juste: Corinne Begluk.
Suzanne de Basserive: Anna Mitcham.
Sir Percy Blakeney: Andrew Ryan.
Armand St Juste: George Gough.
Sir Andrew Ffoulkes: Stephen Charrett.
Citizen Chauvelin: Mark Huckett.
Director: Karen Henson.
Designer: John Goodrum.
Lighting Designer: Geoff Gilder.
Sound Designer: David Gilbrook.
Wardrobe: Geoff Gilder.