Review: The Scarlet Pimpernel. Leicester Guildhall. Crooked Hand Productions.

As we read the programme pre-show one is gladdened by the printed news that ‘No horses were harmed during this production’. The director’s notes aid our imagination with the following titbit about the classic adventure tale about to unfold on stage: ‘Come back with us now, back through the mists of time and escape the worries of our world for a little while – back to a time when England was divided into the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’, when sickness and plague blighted everyday life and refugees were treated with suspicion.’

As one’s alarmed eyebrows contort and twist with a sudden recognition that history may well be repeating itself, we nervously read on: ‘You have now realised ‘there is nothing new under the sun’ (we have indeed). Although written over a hundred years ago and set in Regency period England, Baroness Orcy’s story still has plenty to say about our society.’

Crooked Hand Productions‘ seventy-five minute stage adaptation of The Scarlet Pimpernel is to be acted out in the properly historic and decidedly atmospheric 15th Century Grade One listed Leicester Guildhall for just two dates, 23-24 September. The adaptation and direction is by Paul Gosling with co-direction and choreography from Liza Mortimer. The Guildhall is reputedly haunted by human spirits and there have also been sightings of a phantom dog and black cat ghost which have been seen in the courtyard and the Great Hall respectively. Let’s hope they don’t appear this evening!

The amateur cast are formed of Rob Leeson (Sir Percy Blakeney/The Pimpernel), Vicky Johnson (Lady Marguerite Blakeney), Ken Ogborn (Citizen Paul Chauvelin), Keith Rowe (Sir Andrew Ffolkes), Tracey Gee (Peasant/Monsieur Gadois/Cleaner/French Guardsman/French Captain), David Smith (Peasant/Armand/French Guard/The Dauphin/Ship’s Mate), Cathy Rackstraw (Revolutionary/Countess Pauncey-Chaupes), Luke Blaylock (Revolutionary/Le Conte De Smallchange) and Diesel Johnson (The Footman).

The Great Hall is packed with a local Leicester audience as far as the socially distanced seating can allow and clearly the amateur drama scene is well supported in the city. After difficult Covid related times of late for all theatre, to see a full house is always a pleasure.

The practical staging of The Scarlet Pimpernel is a basic affair with some electric candles placed on and around the apron of the stage and the main bijou stage is lit by two arc lamps. A permanently set on-stage un/dressing screen gives the production some visual variety and serves to help with the comedy of Sir Percy Blakeney’s cunning habit of quick change disguising himself to confuse his adversaries and escape death. Other scenes are suggested with the simple placement of chairs and a table. The lack of black-out facilities at this venue causes some hiatus in the play’s progress through these scene changes.

To write a play is laudable, but no easy task. The equally challenging task for a director is to find an agreed playing style to augment the writing style. This often comes as part of the early creative process and should never be an afterthought. With this production, sadly, both seem to lose their way and at times there are more long pauses than there are to be found in a dusty collection of well-thumbed Harold Pinter plays. This could be down to first night nerves and, feasibly, things will be clearer and tighter for the second showing.

The spoken aspects flit from historical expository to contemporary dialogues with some visual humour thrown in. However, this includes a completely out-of-frame request by one character asking for directions to the Eiffel Tower in the early 1800s. Although a joke is made of this by explaining that Eiffel’s famous Parisian tower won’t be built until a hundred year’s time, it is a jarring inclusion. Other historically connecting humour linking the social problems of the Georgian/Regency era with our own contemporary world succeed and raise some good laughs as does Sir Percy Blakeney’s running gag attempts to find a floral ending to the famous “They seek him here, they seek him there…” poem.

Some of the tongue-in-cheek visual jokes work well too, such as the thwarted actions of trying to blow out two battery powered candles and the fight with the spoons towards the end of the piece.

With no obvious playing style throughout, The Scarlet Pimpernel often loses vital energy. This is most evident during the scenes where a more vocally confident character is verbally communicating with one of the more quietly spoken actors who has no vocal projection, for example. This causes an aural dip in the text/story being conveyed out into the audience and if done regularly enough we can, as an audience, quite literally, lose the plot, what little there may be of it. It’s about finding a good marriage of text and style and adapting and rehearsing the show until it gleams and all becomes second nature and a thrill for all parties as a shared experience. Under rehearsing a show can also lead to a catalogue of performance issues.

As this reviewer has experienced himself over many enjoyable years, acting in amateur productions are a mixed bag of local talent; the experienced creatives and players and those that are still learning their theatre crafts and hopefully will continue to grow and delight their audiences.

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