Review: The Scarlet Pimpernel. Theatre Royal Nottingham.

The Classic Thriller season at Nottingham Theatre Royal celebrates its 30th year in 2018. The Scarlet Pimpernel is the third production in this year’s season, and probably one of the most well-known. It’s a name many might know without having any idea of it being from a play or a novel, so often has it been featured in films, television and on-stage. And so the eponymous hero has become something of a myth and a mystery. Real life reflecting fiction.

The character of the Pimpernel was created by Baroness Orczy, a Hungarian aristocrat who moved to England aged 15. She studied art and enjoyed the cultural life of London, finally deciding to write a thriller of the type she went to see in London. She struggled to find a publisher for her novel, and so presented it initially as a play. Interestingly, it’s very first performance was at the Theatre Royal, Nottingham in 1903, and after a successful debut it moved to London. Although not well received by the critics of the time, the public loved the idea of a clever, master-of-disguise outwitting a well meaning but dull policeman and it became a template for many similar anti-hero characters to follow.

Tabs Productions present a new adaptation of the play by Louise Page, writer of ‘Tissue’ amongst other plays, and the script allows a fairly complicated narrative to be told with simplicity, wit and warmth.

The story follows Sir Percy Blakeney and his wife Margueritte de Juste against the background of the French revolution, where aristocrats are being guillotined and emotions are running high. Margueritte is put into an impossible position and must co-operate with the policeman she despises in order to protect her beloved brother. In so doing, little does she realise she is revealing the identity of the famous Scarlet Pimpernel. Meanwhile, the Pimpernel continues to pluck condemned aristocrats from under the blade of the guillotine or from their prisons and takes them to freedom in England.

The small cast of Tabs Productions play a multitude of characters, and it is surprising at the curtain call to find only six actors on the stage! Considering that three of them are constant, it means the other 3 must have a hot and busy time constantly changing costumes and wigs! Oh, and accents – whilst there is no attempt to represent the French with an appropriate accent (which may anyway have smacked a little of ‘Allo Allo’), many regions of the UK are visited. The setting is simple but effective, with the use of a few adaptable props to transform from a ball room to a country inn or a harbour, along with some straightforward lighting and incidental music to help delineate France from England. The play is well directed by Karen Henson.

The thriller genre has become so commonplace that it’s difficult to see there being any real ‘thrill’ left. Characters have become stereotypes, the structure means that there must be conflict between protagonist and antagonist, there must be peril, but generally there is a denouement which favours the righteous. So, if the audience doesn’t go to be ‘thrilled’, what does it get?

Pure entertainment. It doesn’t matter that the story is familiar or the characters a little predictable, this production breathes new life into the expected and presents it afresh. Andrew Ryan as Sir Percy/the Pimpernel has such confidence that one can relax in his performance. Corinne Begluk presents a Margueritte with just enough verve and pluck to make us want to side with her. Citizen Chauvelin, the unlucky policeman, is brought to life by Mark Huckett with the right amount of villainous creepiness.

It’s a pleasant and entertaining, well-known tale. presented with simplicity and self-assurance by some talented actors. No need to seek the elusive Pimpernel, in heaven or hell, this week, he has returned to his spiritual home in Nottingham.

The Scarlet Pimpernel runs at Nottingham Theatre Royal until Sat 18th August.

Reviewer: Kathryn McAuley

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