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The Scarlet Pimpernel
Avon Theatre
By Beverley Cross
Adapted from the novel by Baroness Orczy
Directed by Dennis Garnhum

Play summary | Globe and Mail review

From the program:

Only a trusted band of followers know that the elegant Sir Percy Blakeney, baronet, is far from the ineffectual fop he seems to be: that he is, in fact, the mysterious and dashing hero who risks his life to save French aristocrats from the guillotine. Not even Sir Percy's wife knows his secret - and therein lies his greatest danger.

The Globe and Mail's review:

Pretty costuming can't rescue this Pimpernel
Saturday, June 1, 2002 Print Edition, Page R13

Rating: **

As Frenchmen who can't speak French chase Englishmen who sound like Canadians across the stage of the Avon Theatre, it is hard to take the Stratford Festival's Scarlet Pimpernel seriously. Of course, this romantic adventure story about the mysterious English hero who smuggles French aristocrats out of Revolutionary Paris, should not be taken too seriously, but in this uneven stage version director Dennis Garnhum isn't in full control of his ironies.

The Scarlet Pimpernel has a long history on stage: when the Baroness Orczy, a Hungarian émigré in London, couldn't find a publisher for her swashbuckling novel, she turned it into a play that premiered on the West End in 1903 and became a big hit. Audiences were captivated by the chameleon-like central character -- the foppish Sir Percy Blakeney by day; the guillotine-defying Pimpernel by night -- and by the romantic adventure story in which his French wife is blackmailed into betraying her husband by the revolutionary fanatic Chauvelin. The popular success of the play then led to the publication of the book in 1905, which in turn has spawned multiple movie adaptations and a Broadway musical.

Stratford, meanwhile, is using a newer stage version which England's Chichester Festival commissioned from the British playwright Beverley Cross in 1985. Cross (who is a man, by the way) has penned a script with a strong dramatic line but he tends to overdo the Harlequin language and toss in too many self-conscious French phrases for the French characters. His jokes, about ladies' cleavage and foreign names that when pronounced are mistaken for sneezing, are painfully stale. Chichester also added a few songs to the first half, an awkward idea that Garnhum has preserved, creating the impression of an inchoate musical before the music simply stops in the the second half.

On a revolving set designed by Cameron Porteous with an impressive guillotine that doubles as the mast of a schooner that will spirit aristocrats across the channel, Garnhum presents a strong physical staging (although his cast were still getting some of their fight scenes straight at Thursday's opening). It is the director's attitude towards the material that is erratic, indecisive about whether the more ludicrous lines are to be played for laughs or not. In particular, he lets Peter Hutt's sneering and cackling version of Chauvelin go far too far towards parody, thereby robbing the figure of threat and the play of tension.

Still, Chauvelin's encounters with Peter Donaldson's highly amusing Sir Percy are engaging, although both of these powerful dramatic actors are visibly underemployed by their roles. As Sir Percy's French wife Marguerite, Sheila McCarthy's distinctive nasal tones and chirpy persona make her, as always, a bright spot on the stage, but the notion that this Anglo soubrette is "the cleverest woman in France" is laughable.

There's firm work from Ian Deakin's Prince of Wales, and Scott Wentworth turns in a vicious little cameo as Robespierre, but the rest of the supporting cast is uneven, struggling to make their misplaced accents and contemporary body language fit with the snazzy 18th-century togs designed by Kelly Wolf. If only this show sounded as prettily convincing as it looks.
The Scarlet Pimpernel continues to Nov. 2 at the Avon Theatre in Stratford, Ont. For information call: 1-800-567-1600.

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