Scaramouche Jones, Old Vic, Bristol

Wasted talent in such a poor play
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The Independent Culture

Occasionally, press officers have a rush of blood to the head and present theatre critics with copies of the play they have come to review. In the case of Scaramouche Jones, Justin Butcher's script is unfortunately the last thing you'd want to hang on to. Give me a portable Pete Postlethwaite to keep in my living room and deliver gripping performances on demand, and I'd be a happy man. But instead I'm lumbered with a memento which will be going straight to my local charity shop.

Scaramouche Jones is a clown who is set to celebrate his 100th birthday – and promptly die – at midnight on Millennium Eve. As the clock ticks towards the fateful hour, he prepares himself for death and recounts the story of his life.

The artificiality of the timescales is merely the first indication of the triteness that is to follow. Matters grow worse as we discover that Scaramouche Jones was born to a "gypsy whore" in Port o' Spain, Trinidad. Clowns, gypsies, the exotic West Indies: Mr Butcher's view of the world seems to draw more on Enid Blyton than the magical realism to which it appears to aspire.

The writing style is best characterised as baroque. At first glance one might conclude from the richness of the text that the author owned a very well-thumbed thesaurus, until one realises that there is actually a dreadful paucity of linguistic variety, to the point where the language is more Mills & Boon than Thomas Hardy. All gypsies are "dark-eyed", their womenfolk all have "dusky skin", and every scrap of local colour on Scaramouche's long journey from Trinidad to England is lifted straight out of the Lonely Planet Guide to Regional Clichés.

When, as a boy, Scaramouche is sold as a slave, what else could his purchaser be but a "hawk-nosed Arab slave trader" with a "sleek sailing dhow"? In fact, there is hardly any cliché, literary or otherwise, which Mr Butcher leaves unturned as he sends Scaramouche Jones on his peregrinations around the globe. Above all, there is the dominant motif of the clown. Now there are some people who feel that clowns are exceptionally poignant characters. They were the ones who made the picture of the tearful pierrot one of the defining images of the 1970s. But it would be nice if a playwright could at least make some effort to raise the basic premise of his play above the level of an Athena poster.

Yet despite the script, there is one excellent reason for seeing Scaramouche Jones: Pete Postlethwaite. Showing himself again to be one of Britain's finest living actors, he takes the material – so drab and uninspired on the page – and deliver an absorbing solo performance imbued with a Gielgudian air of otherworldly detachment. Whatever happens to this poor whey-faced simpleton, he seems completely unfazed, almost unaffected by it. In a mesmerising display of storytelling, Postlethwaite nearly succeeds in making Mr Butcher's cartoon cipher believable, and likeable. It's just a dreadful shame that such a mighty talent should be working with such mediocre material.

To Saturday (0117-987 7877); then touring

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