My knowledge of the French Revolution is minimal, not stretching much beyond Marie Antoinette, and her proclamations to “let them eat cake”. So, I went into Countess Jeanne and the Necklace Scam with very little background knowledge, unaware that the play is based on a true story until I did some research on the bus home. But this is one of the many things to love about theatre; opening your eyes to people and history you might never have learnt about otherwise.
Countess Jeanne expected an aristocratic life, but her dying royal bloodline left her on the outskirts of society. Here at the Drayton Arms Theatre, she narrates the story of her life, from humble upbringings to being part of the “Affair of the Diamond Necklace” – one of the events said to help garner support for the French Revolution. It’s a remarkable story and could be presented as a serious piece of historical drama. It’s easy to imagine a glossy BBC primetime slot taking on the tale. But Countess Jeanne and the Necklace Scam employs a somewhat sillier approach.
This is a very funny play that will have you snorting into your wine: from the courtiers with their The Only Way is Essex-style commentary about other women in the court, to the farce-filled encounters with Marie-Antoinette or the Cardinal. There are a comically high number of costume changes, ingenious use of minimal set and props, plus a wonderfully funny earnestness to the whole production.
The cast are brilliant, a joy to watch throughout. Isabel Lamers as the Countess is a star, she plays the role very straight compared to the comedy of the characters, but this works wonderfully. She’s personable from the very beginning and it is easy to root for her throughout her tale. Elise Williams plays Marie-Antoinette with deliciously indulgent over-acting and humour, breaking the fourth wall with style and amusement. There are a few little slip-ups and, although minor, Hannah Ross is brilliant at acknowledging them with comedic timing that makes them instantly forgotten. She’s hilarious as Cardinal Rohan. Joshua Jewkes plays the Countess’ love interest and fellow fraudster, completing this fantastically funny cast. You can tell they had a lot of fun, which is always a treat to watch.
There is a lot of detail, and as a result it’s a two-hour play. On the less-than-comfortable seats of the Drayton Arms Theatre, this does feel just a touch too long. The pace is generally good and the humour keeps it engaging, but perhaps more editing of the story would have helped us forget about our numb bums. It’s also a shame that there was a particularly rowdy group of men in the corridor below the theatre for a fair chunk of the second half, which was hard to overlook, although the cast coped brilliantly at ignoring the distraction.
If you fancy escaping the bleak reality of the news, this is a very funny night at the theatre. It’s easy to forget any troubles and become immersed in the world of Countess Jeanne and her remarkable story. If only all history lessons had been so much fun!
Written and Directed by: Bern Hogan
Produced by: Feckett Productions
Countess Jeanne and the Necklace Scam plays at Drayton Arms Theatre until 22 October. Further information and bookings can be found here.