Just like any self-respecting thirty something that grew up in Australia in the nineties, I felt enormously privileged to find myself in the front row of Colin Friels’ one man show, intriguingly entitled, Scaramouche Jones. Like many of my contemporaries I was enamoured with Colin Friels from his days on the police drama, Water Rats, where he played the role of Detective Senior Constable Frank Hollaway. Having shamefully not seen him in anything else, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, but the teenage crush-voice inside of me said that I’d enjoy it. She was wrong about many things, but not that.
Scaramouche Jones was, in a word, fantastic.
Fairfax Studio is where this play will exhaust its short run on the 25th of this month. The studio sits inside the majestic Arts Centre and, while I don’t frequent it much for theatre, I think it’s a spectacular venue for a performance and/or a night of frivolity. It reminds me of the kind of place I visited as a child, where I was made to wear my very smartest outfit. There’s something very grown up about the place and if it weren’t for this ghastly Melbourne winter, the stroll to the venue that night overlooking the twinkling reflections on the Yarra, would have only added to the enjoyment of the evening. Luckily for the audience, Scaramouche Jones was undeniably heart warming.
With respect to performance, there was nothing to fault. Colin Friels is a class act and indeed, one of the greats. Judging from Friels’ exuberant standing ovation following curtain call, I am positive I’m not alone in this sentiment. Call me a cynic but I’m not all that jazzed on a standing ovation. In fact, I’d be that person at the Oscars who’d opt for my seat when the camera scanned the audience. I must say though, on this occasion, I was more than happy to join my theatre-going brethren in their sincere adoration and congratulations for Friels, who had just remembered approximately ninety minutes of the most elaborate lines I have ever heard in my life. God knows how he remembered it all with (seemingly) not a glitch. I am pleased to say Colin Friels is as good on stage as I have immortalised him in my mind from those early Water Rats days.
As perhaps already hinted, the other highlight of Scaramouche Jones was the mind-blowingly good writing. Penned by the English playwright, Justin Butcher and consisting of quite possibly the most dynamic and thrilling writing I have ever seen performed, Saramouche Jones is up there with Shakespeare for me. The writing did what all wonderful stories do, it took the audience on the most incredible journey, incorporating such fantastical things as a snake charmer, travelling gypsies and great escapes. Save for the talking animals, the writing took me back to reading C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books as a child, with all of their wonder and energy. With Scaramouche as our captain, the audience travelled to Trinidad, Africa, Europe and finally England as the character recounts the story of his life. It’s the turn of the century and Scaramouche Jones had had enough.
The only problem I could highlight with the narrative was that not all of the tales grabbed your attention, which found me disengaged on a few occasions. With this said, when it was good, it was profound, the most notable being Scaramouch’s gravedigger story at Auschwitz where, while you could have heard a pin drop, you could also hear the audible gasps from the audience. The play was as much existential and philosophical as it was an elaborate campfire yarn.
The stage was minimal as were the use of props. Personally, I was left wanting more from the set and lighting design. While I do acknowledge the strength of minimalism when the content is great, I felt that the theatrics inherent in the stories Scaramouche told, could have been even more punctuated by more stimulating choices from the set and lighting departments, respectively.
After clapping solidly for four or so curtain calls, I collected my coat from coat check and made my way back into the blistering cold Melbourne night. Scaramouche Jones made for a wonderful evening at the theatre and now that Colin Friels is firmly on my radar again, I have vowed not to leave it so long between performances.