Seeking the swashbuckle of The Scarlet Pimpernel in Eastbourne’s Devonshire Park Theatre

Marguertite in The Scarlet Pimpernel, Devonshire Park Theatre SUS-180108-083314001
Marguertite in The Scarlet Pimpernel, Devonshire Park Theatre SUS-180108-083314001

They seek him here, they seek him there. The elusive Scarlet Pimpernel is at the Devonshire Park Theatre this week – but in this famous tale of guillotines and derring-do, gripping tension proves a little elusive too.

Director Karen Henson and her colleagues at TABS Productions – regular visitors to the Devonshire Park – have a sound record in turning literature into theatre, but this new adaptation by Louise Page may be a stage too far. Heroic tales from history can still work as novels, firng the reader’s mind, or as television costume drama, full of effects and location sequences. But on stage, the dash and daring of the Scarlet Pimpernel are just too hemmed in.

The idealised adventures, one man with a swishing rapier against the ugly new despots of the French Revolution, have a rather nostalgic schoolboy-hero quality but they should still be able to excite us. Here, though, the action is slow and the narrative laboured, especially in Act One, and the interval foyer was full of some rather puzzled theatre-goers.

Initially, characters lack definition, sometimes confused by hats, wigs and cloaks. Framing the action as a play within a play is an interesting device, although not fully exploited. A cleverly lit set, rich with drapes in red and black – Le Rouge et le Noir? - gives effective period atmosphere. It just cries out for more swash and buckle.

In fairness, the acting itself is proficient. Corinne Begluk is a class act as Marguerite St Juste, with desperately torn loyalties. Andrew Ryan’s Percy Blakeney nicely balances the effete facade with the brave hero beneath. And Mark Huckett’s Citizen Chauvelin, amoral spokesman of the Revolution, is odious enough to deserve some hissing and booing. Worthy support comes from Stephen Charrett and George Gough.

But working with that script is like asking Nadal and Federer to play tennis in a peat bog.

Thankfully, the second half is drastically better. Act Two is only half as long as Act One, but twice as effective. In a lively and amusing tavern scene – easily the best of the play – Anna Mitcham has a cracking turn as a slimline Madame Thenardier, and the events of the story fall into place. The action gathers pace and our aristocratic hero triumphs, of course. Stay with it, and you may well find it satisfying. By Kevin Anderson.

* read more: Summer entertainment in Eastbourne sorted with Return To The Forbidden Planet