Ray Rackham reviews Scaramouche Jones starring Shane Richie which is now streaming through Stream.Theatre.
A three-star review is a bit of a curate’s egg. Like the meek curate in the original cartoon who presented to the Bishop’s table a stale egg, assuring the recipient that “parts of it are excellent”; three stars seem to suggest some parts of a show are good, but there are others that are possibly dreadful. Perhaps the kindest way to class a three-star review is that the show might be good. That “might” is at best non-committal, potentially misleading, and risks annoying a theatregoer expecting a solid night out. Scaramouche Jones, under Ian Talbot’s direction, and in spite of a tour-de-force performance from Shane Ritchie, is exactly that.
The titular character is a hundred-year-old clown who, on the eve of the new millennium, decides to share his life story, on the night of his swag song performance, and – in his words – “the very arse end of the twentieth century”. He is ready to die as if marking the centenary is enough, but not before he bares both body and soul to whoever is listening. His story is fascinating, as Justin Butcher’s scripted monologue takes us from Carnivals in Trinidad, via the Concentration Camps of Eastern Europe, to the tailored streets of London Town. On paper, the journey sounds as contrived as ridiculous, but Butcher deals with rapid and necessary exposition in a way that makes it at least work. It takes, however, too long to get going and as – at forty-one minutes in – Scaramouche starts to talk of Ypres and Passchendaele, we realise we’ve only travelled sixteen of those hundred years, and brace ourselves for a long night!
Ritchie’s performance is, consistently, good. At many points it is excellent. Teetering expertly between avant-garde-high-brow and bawdy end-of-the-pier, it is an interpretation that really works. Ritchie’s somewhat unnerving bravado is counteracted by physical twitches and bandied legs that would make Kenny Everett proud; the result being charming and tragic in equal measure. It really is a delight to witness. Butcher’s script is bigger than any actor should ever want to be, weaving encounters with dangerous slave traders, snake charmers, Mussolini and victims of fascism going to their death. Ritchie handles this excess head-on, and is unsurprisingly most brilliant when he ditches the performative and truly believes in the horrors of his character’s many and varied experiences.
Sadly, however, Ritchie isn’t enough. This production is a combination of excess that just doesn’t make sense. A crumbled red cellophane explosion envelopes the dusty, mid-century furniture which sits underneath a backstage staircase, all punctuated by red helium balloons; giving the impression that Andrew Exeter’s set has been sprayed with toffee apple sauce just before streaming. Harry Regan’s unending soundscape is simply too intrusive, and the flickering cam-corderesque nods to the Blair Witch Project become irritating quickly, rather than enhance the fact that we are watching at home. Ultimately, the many switches in tonal quality (in every sense) are not as effective as Talbot might have hoped, and instead appear to be a jolting assault on the senses.
Scaramouche Jones is entertaining in its absurdity and interesting in its tragedy. This production doesn’t itself add, but rather detract, from a solid performance from Ritchie, in a disjointed but entertaining story by Burke. As a sum of its parts, however, it remains a rambling kaleidoscope that just doesn’t blend.