Scaramouche Jones and the Seven White Masks by Justin Butcher was written for the late Pete Postlethwaite almost twenty years ago, and has been revived regularly since. Much loved by fans, if not necessarily ever a monster hit, it is a finely-crafted collection of tall tales covering nothing less than the whole of humanity and all of twentieth-century history. What’s more, as a solo show, it provides a Hamlet-like opportunity for an actor to really test their mettle. This is because Jones, as a character, is as richly drawn as you could wish for. He is an everyman wanderer of a clown, born in 1899, who decides to end it all after his final performance on Millennium eve. What then, would TV’s Shane Ritchie bring us? The casting may have raised some eyebrows, but only amongst those who don’t know of the EastEnders and I’m A Celebrity star’s increasingly impressive body of stage work.
It’s probably fair to Mr Ritchie, then, to set the scene before discussing his performance. This is a recorded performance rather than a live stream, filmed in a backstage corner of an unnamed London theatre. Mr Jones is white-faced and bewigged in a well-worn quasi-Victorian suit. He is surrounded by red balloons, a shiny backdrop and various scattered props. It is a curious mix of naturalism and something more abstract. There is no real attempt to pretend we are actually there, as an audience. Ritchie sometimes acknowledges the camera, sometimes not. Edit points, one presumes, are marked by flickering ‘static’ making the whole thing oddly resemble security camera footage. It is into this slightly off-kilter world that Jones enters and sets out his stall. We are to keep him company on the last night of his life, which happens to also be the last night of 1999. As champagne bottles ‘ejaculate’ joyfully, as he puts it, he will lay down his head and shuffle off this mortal coil. As Prince didn’t say.
The problem is, Ritchie’s take on Jones isn’t nearly old enough or, frankly, sad enough for this idea to fully work. There seems little nostalgia at play, no ache in his character’s joints or melancholy in his heart. We get a series of proclamations, set pieces and anecdotes that whip through at panto pace, but do not help us grasp the required grief or regret at their heart. We also, it has to be said, get some distracting accent choices, which are especially unfortunate when creating a Caribbean boyhood. Judging streamed performances can’t be easy, but Ritchie and director Ian Talbot consistently ‘go big’ here when the text deserves more subtlety.
The plot, romping through world history as it does in the colourful company of prostitutes, gypsies, snakes, pirates and more, remains fun. The fact you can enjoy this version in the comfort of your own home counts in its favour too. It all just feels a little empty. A clown with no tears is, after all, just a clown.
Written by: Justin Butcher
Directed by: Ian Talbot
Produced by: Ginger Quiff Media
Scaramouche Jones is available via stream.theatre. Tickets are £15 plus booking fee. Further details and booking via the below link.