‘God, what a day’ is the first thing said to us by Scaramouche Jones, the red-nosed, white-faced clown who – sensing the ghosts of an audience in his dressing room – decides to share the ‘epilogue of his life’. He’s in reflective mood, having just given what he knows to be his final performance. More, it’s just an hour before numerous bells and fireworks mark the beginning of the 21st century – indeed, of a new millennium. In a somewhat writerly conceit, those fireworks will also mark the centenary of his birth – as an unusually white-skinned, illegitimate child – to a gypsy prostitute in Trinidad.
This is a story of life and death, of happiness and unimaginable suffering, of long-lost worlds that are beautifully created out of words.
While clowns in British culture tend to be known for their physical tomfoolery and bumbling slapstick, this particular Scaramouche is of an altogether more silent, satirical variety of humour; fitting, given that the story he tells is as much about the globally turbulent 20th century as his own small life, blown back and forth across continents and nations by fate, happenstance, and a snake charmer with a love of Gilbert and Sullivan. It’s one hell of a story, though of course it enjoys the editing of hindsight: Scaramouche almost revels in how, aged just six, he became ‘an orphan, a slave and an exile’ within just one day. Ebullient though he is, he is still an unreliable narrator.
Thom Tuck (of Penny Dreadfuls fame on BBC Radio 4) makes full use of the small performance area to reflect physically the tale he’s telling (even if he risks falling out of sight of some of the audience). Psychologically, though, this is far from being the story of some white-faced clown who slowly reveals himself as he wipes off his make-up; while there is, indeed, a scripted loss of the red nose, wig and ridiculous tailcoat, writer Justin Butcher is interested in how this man’s life experiences applied the ‘seven white masks’ which ultimately made Scaramouche Jones a successful clown.
This is a story of life and death, of happiness and unimaginable suffering, of long-lost worlds that are beautifully created out of words – bursting with colour, noise and smells. In script terms, though, it is undoubtedly lopsided; almost the whole focus is on the 50 years that made him a clown rather than the half century he performed as one, and more could be made of marking the show’s end with the sound of fireworks. A very few stutters aside, Tuck inhabits the role with real humility, wisdom and a sufficient element of pleasant surprise at a world that’s ‘all so dizzily strange’. The result is some genuinely enchanting theatre.